Canucks will soon face difficult decision with pending free agent Markstrom

Nov 4 2019, 2:37 pm

The Vancouver Canucks will have to make a difficult decision on their goaltenders in the not too distant future.

Coming off a strong season in which he was named team MVP, Jacob Markstrom has been steady again so far this year — posting a .917 save percentage. His backup Thatcher Demko, so far at least, is looking like the best No. 2 goalie the team has had in years.

But with the Seattle expansion draft set for June 2021, the clock is ticking.

Markstrom, who turns 30 in January, is in the last year of a three-year deal that pays him $3.667 million per season. Demko, meanwhile, is under contract this year and next for $1.05 million per season.

As good as Demko has looked so far — with the fifth-highest save percentage in the NHL and third in goals against average — giving him the reigns as the unquestioned starter next season is probably premature, so expect the Canucks to offer Markstrom an extension.

But Seattle’s arrival means the team can’t be all-in on Markstrom.

The Canucks will only be allowed to protect one of Markstrom or Demko in the expansion draft, meaning they’ll need flexibility. That means a no-movement clause for Markstrom, at least as it pertains to the Seattle expansion, has to be a non-starter.

A long term deal should be out of the question too, given Markstrom’s age, Demko’s potential, and the unpredictable nature of goaltending in the NHL.

On the flip side, Markstrom will have options in free agency, particularly if he puts together another strong season.

The Swedish netminder was a late bloomer, so he didn’t become an NHL starter until age 27. Since taking over from Ryan Miller as the Canucks’ No. 1 goalie in 2017, Markstrom ranks 15th in wins (56), 18th in save percentage (.912), and 16th in goals against average (2.72) among goalies with 80+ games played in that time.

So what’s that worth? To get an idea of what Markstrom might be able to command, let’s take a look at some recent comparable contracts from goaltenders of similar age and ability.

Contract comparables

Antti Raanta (Arizona Coyotes)

Contract: Second year of a three-year deal worth $4.25 million per season
Age at beginning of contract: 29
Seasons as No. 1 goalie before signing: 1
Year signed: 2018

Antti Raanta had just one season as a No. 1 goalie on his resume when he signed a three-year contract extension a month before his 29th birthday.

He was coming off a spectacular season statistically though, posting a .930 save percentage. The Finnish goaltender also had four years of backup experience to draw from, including two good seasons as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup in New York.

The Coyotes got him at a good price, paying just $4.25 million per season on a three-year deal.

Semyon Varlamov (New York Islanders)

Contract: First year of a four-year deal worth $5 million per season
Age at beginning of contract: 31
Seasons as No. 1 goalie: 8
Year signed: 2019

Semyon Varlamov was signed by the New York Islanders as an unrestricted free agent last summer, inking a four-year deal worth $5 million per season. Varlamov also received a no-trade clause for the first two years of the deal, transitioning into a limited no-trade clause in years three and four.

He was a year older than Markstrom will be, though he has many more seasons of experience as a No. 1 goalie. Varlamov posted a .909 save percentage last season, which was worse than Markstrom.

Mikko Koskinen (Edmonton Oilers)

Contract: First year of a three-year deal worth $4.5 million per season
Age at beginning of contract: 31
Seasons as No. 1 goalie: 1
Year signed: 2019

Most observers agree that the Edmonton Oilers jumped the gun when they signed Mikko Koskinen to a three-year extension worth $4.5 million per season.

Koskinen got a limited no-trade clause included in his deal, which was signed midway through his first season as a starting goaltender – albeit at an advanced age following a successful stint in the KHL.

Martin Jones (San Jose Sharks)

Contract: Second year of a six-year deal worth $5.75 million per season
Age at beginning of contract: 27
Seasons as No. 1 goalie: 2
Year signed: 2017

Martin Jones signed a six-year contract following his second season as the starting goalie of the San Jose Sharks when he was just 27 years old. He played a ton — 65 games each season — and posted save percentages of .918 and .912.

His play dropped off significantly last season and he has struggled early on in 2019-20 as well, which perhaps should serve as a warning. Signing just about any goalie to a long term contract comes with risk, because the position is so unpredictable.

The plan ahead

Offering anything more than a three-year term for Markstrom would be a mistake.

Getting him on a two-year term would be a win, though that might be wishful thinking. The Canucks netminder is likely to be in high demand, as the list of pending UFA goalies isn’t impressive. Markstrom, along with 28-year-old Robin Lehner and 30-year-old Braden Holtby are the only bonafide No. 1 goalies under age 34 that could be available on the open market.

Here’s the list of pending unrestricted free agent goalies, courtesy of CapFriendly.com (note: ages of goalies listed are for next summer):

Player Team Age Cap hit
Braden Holtby WSH 30 $6.1 M
Corey Crawford CHI 35 $6 M
Robin Lehner CHI 28 $5 M
Craig Anderson OTT 39 $4.75 M
Jimmy Howard DET 36 $4 M
Jacob Markstrom VAN 30 $3.667 M
Thomas Greiss NYI 34 $3.33 M
Cam Talbot CGY 32 $2.75 M
Jaroslav Halak BOS 35 $2.75 M
Anton Khudobin DAL 34 $2.5 M
Mike Condon TBL 30 $2.4 M
Brian Elliott PHI 35 $2 M
Mike Smith EDM 38 $2 M
Aaron Dell SJS 31 $1.9 M
Keith Kinkaid MTL 30 $1.75 M
Laurent Brossoit WPG 27 $1.225 M
Louis Domingue NJD 28 $1.15 M
Ryan Miller ANA 39 $1.125 M

That’s why a three-year deal worth about $5 million per season could make sense — keeping him under contract until age 33. That would equal the current cap hit of four other netminders, who rank 13-16 in cap hits among NHL goalies.

The key will be getting the flexibility to move Markstrom if Demko proves he’s ready to take over as the No. 1 goalie.

Still, a three-year deal doesn’t come without risk — certainly the deteriorating play of Jonathan Quick, Sergei Bobrovsky, Corey Crawford, and Cory Schneider into their 30s should serve as a warning.