Before the season began, Jim Benning went on Vancouver radio and proclaimed for everyone to hear that Ryan Miller was the Canucks’ #1 goalie. He was criticized by many for the declaration, given the presence of up-and-coming goalie Jacob Markstrom, but 48 games into the season, the Canucks GM has been proven right, particularly of late.
The 36-year-old netminder’s resurgent play since the beginning of December has been instrumental in allowing the Canucks to within one point of the second wild card spot.
In his last 13 games dating back to December 16, Miller has emerged as the Canucks’ clear cut starting goaltender with an 8-2-3 record and a .931 save percentage. Since Boxing Day, Miller leads all goaltenders in the NHL with the highest even strength save percentage. (The stat still holds true to today).
— Omar A (@omarcanuck) January 18, 2017
Coming into this season, the expectation for many was that Markstrom would challenge Miller for more ice time and clout in the Canucks crease. Whether that was a 1A/1B situation, or more of a 50-50 split, it was expected that Markstrom would build off his 30 starts in his first full season as the Canucks back-up. That hasn’t been the case, with Markstrom taking a backseat to Miller’s recent dominance.
Head coach Willie Desjardins has entrusted Miller to not only save his bacon, but keep the Canucks in the thick on things as they scratch and claw in hopes of occupying a playoff spot at the conclusion of the season. The Canucks are 15-3-6 in one-goal games this season, and a large portion of that can be accredited to Miller for holding the fort.
Based on his development path, Markstrom should be, in theory, be getting more starts considering he turns 27 at the end of the month and is 10 years younger than Miller. His three-year contract extension worth $3.66 million contract kicks in next season, too. He should be taking steps to becoming a starting goalie.
But that’s not reality right now.
With the Canucks set to play in back-to-back nights, Markstrom will make just his sixth start in Vancouver’s last 19 games on Wednesday. That puts him on pace for roughly 10 more games of action.
The Canucks play 10 games in 18 nights following the All-Star break before for their CBA-mandated bye-week. That span features two back-to-backs so it’s likely Markstrom will relieve Miller for a couple nights off, with six of those 10 games being on the road. They then play their final 21 games in 44 nights. Desjardins would be wise to turn to Markstrom more during this compressed and grueling schedule to keep Miller as fresh as possible.
Based on the projection of games he’s slated to play this season, you have to wonder if the Canucks aren’t fully sold on Markstrom to being their starting goalie next season.
That leads some to wonder if the Canucks may open up negotiations with Miller about a possible one-year extension.
According to Ben Kuzma of The Province, the idea of re-signing Miller is “gaining momentum for obvious reasons.”
Benning has stated on multiple occasions that he’s not going to ask his veteran players to waive their no-trade contracts. That means the likes of Miller (who has a modified no-trade clause) and Alex Burrows (full no-trade) are likely to ride their contracts out instead of being flipped for assets.
Would Miller be open to re-signing in Vancouver to share the load with Markstrom next season? The Michigan native hasn’t been a back-up and his numbers this season are an indication that he can still be a number one in this league. He’s never started less than half of his team’s games when he’s been on a roster for a full season.
Thatcher Demko is 11th in save percentage among American Hockey League rookie goaltenders at .901. He needs, at minimum, another season in the AHL. It took Cory Schneider three full years before earning a spot as the Canucks back-up, and the comparisons between the two American goaltenders are prevalent. There’s no need to rush Demko, so letting him play another two years is probably the safest bet, unless he dominates the AHL. A combination of Miller and Markstrom might be the best stopgap until Demko’s arrival.
As the trade deadline approaches, some will wonder about the pending UFA’s availability in a trade. After all, there are a number of teams in the league with goaltending problems that Miller could solve.
But if Miller can continue to keep the Canucks afloat in low-scoring, low-event games, he’s not going anywhere. In fact, he might just be staying in Vancouver a while longer. With the way Willie has utilized Markstrom this season, Miller time might not be over in Vancouver quite yet.