Welcome back, goalie controversies in Vancouver. How we missed you so.
For most of the Vancouver Canucks regular season playoff run, Jacob Markstrom was the backbone of the team. Just as he’d done all season, Markstrom stopped a bevy of high-danger chances and carried the Canucks to the second round against Vegas.
It’s now been two straight seasons where Markstrom has been named MVP of this team, and playoff Markstrom was no less heroic.
He was the unquestioned starter and the top priority to re-sign in the offseason.
Maybe he still is, though Thatcher Demko has altered the conversation to some degree after three straight spectacular playoff games.
Demko, a highly-touted goalie prospect since 2014, carried Vancouver in Games 5 through 7 against the Golden Knights, stopping an ungodly 128 shots, allowing just two goals in those three games.
With one of the most interesting offseasons in team history on the horizon, the Canucks goalie conundrum rests at the forefront.
Here are five considerations for the Canucks as they aim to unpack this decision.
1. Re-signing Markstrom means Demko’s days are numbered
In terms of the Canucks immediate future, they’re best off re-signing Markstrom and rolling with both goalies for another year.
Often in today’s NHL, teams need to employ two capable goaltenders if they want to have success. Just look at the remaining four teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs for an example of that. Three of the four teams remaining have relied on multiple goaltenders.
However, if the Canucks do re-sign Markstrom, you can’t expect Demko to stick around for more than one season. One reason is that there’s an expansion draft looming, and whichever Canucks goaltender ends up exposed between Markstrom and Demko would be a tasty option for the Seattle Kraken.
i don't have any insight for you on markstrom's contract negotiations but here he is doing a backflip off of sam gagner's house today pic.twitter.com/LteZDCD6RJ
— Sam (@samanthacp_) September 6, 2020
Now, there is a possible twist where the Canucks sign Markstrom and then expose him, but that would be a shocking twist. If he re-signs, expect Demko to be exposed.
Whether Demko is exposed or not though, it doesn’t change the fact that he probably wants more of an opportunity in 2020-21. The 24-year-old is entering the final year of his contract where he’s making $1.05 million. You know that he’ll want more opportunities next season to earn a better pay grade.
2. UFA market for back-ups is shaky
One of the biggest risks to letting Markstrom walk is that there’s an iffy market for back-up goaltenders.
Thomas Greiss is a solid 1B that will likely be available. Semyon Varlamov signed for three more seasons with the New York Islanders, and star prospect Ilya Sorokin destined to make the NHL in 2020-21. However, Greiss will be 35 next season, and benefitted from playing behind Barry Trotz’s stingy defensive system.
Aside from Greiss, the market is filled with goalies who will either cost too much or aren’t very good. Aaron Dell, Laurent Brossoit, and Brian Elliott are some other options on the UFA market. None of them played that well in 2019-20.
3. The goalie aging curve
Although Markstrom is a better goaltender than Demko based on his NHL resume, you have to consider the fact that he’s already 30 years old, and he’s likely to command a long-term deal.
Hockey Graphs completed some analysis on NHL goalies and their aging curves, and here were their main takeaways:
1. Goalies don’t improve as they get older
2. By age 30, goalie decline starts to get REALLY noticeable
3. By mid-30s, even with the aging line, goalies rapidly start to fall apart.
Of course, every goalie is different and there are outliers, but this is something the Canucks need to keep in mind before throwing their chequebook at Markstrom.
Markstrom may get a contract here or he may not. Either way, Ian Clark needs a lifetime deal to stay in Vancouver.
— CanuckSkate (@CanuckSkate) September 7, 2020
4. The Canucks salary cap crunch
This is a problem not just facing the Canucks, but quite literally two-thirds of the National Hockey League.
What makes the Canucks different is that their impending goaltending decision could completely alter their offseason landscape. Markstrom will likely command something in the $6 million per season range, so choosing to let him walk in free agency gives the Canucks some cap flexibility in the long-term.
A back-up will likely cost the Canucks something in the $1.5-$3 million range. That flexibility might just give them enough breathing room to fill out their roster, and to re-sign some of their other free agents like Chris Tanev, Tyler Toffoli, Troy Stecher, Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette, and Josh Leivo.
The other thing to consider is that one year from now, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes will need new deals. There’s a good chance that once those two sign with the Canucks, they’ll eat up $20 million of the salary cap on their own.
5. Demko has done everything asked of a goalie prospect
What gets overshadowed after two years of brilliance from Markstrom is that Demko has been one of the best goalie prospects in the NHL for most of the last five years.
“I’m going to reverse position here…I’m moving past Jacob Markstrom & love Markstrom & I don’t want to knock him but considering their cap situation, they need help in other areas. Demko to me can do the job.”@CraigJButton on #Canucks goaltending situation. pic.twitter.com/oLZ4XoWwdk
— TSN Radio Vancouver (@TSN1040) September 7, 2020
He was a star at Boston College, where he was awarded the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA goalie of the year in 2016. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker that year as well.
Demko progressed nicely down in Utica, where he often played behind a team that was depleted due to injuries and call-ups. Regardless, he still had a 55-36-5 record in a combined three AHL seasons.
Even though he posted a pedestrian 3.06 GAA and a .905 save percentage for the Canucks this season, his quality start percentage (starts with a save percentage above the NHL average) of 60% was actually slightly better than Markstrom’s 58.1% mark. A few bad games from Demko distracted from his otherwise solid first season in the NHL.
As we’ve often seen with goaltenders, there are no sure bets. When it comes to Demko though, it’s hard to ask for more from a prospect.
He projects as a number one NHL goaltender. The question is, will he become that number one goalie as a member of the Vancouver Canucks?