Canucks fail to protect Michael DiPietro in premature debut

Michael DiPietro allowed seven goals on 24 shots and the Vancouver Canucks lost to the San Jose Sharks.

VANCOUVER – The Vancouver Canucks set up Michael DiPietro to fail, and on Monday night, in a premature National Hockey League debut, he did.

The 19-year-old goaltending prospect, an emergency callup from the Ontario Hockey League last week, was forced into an NHL start when Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom reported to work Monday morning experiencing tightness in his lower body.

The idea when backup goalie Thatcher Demko sprained his knee during the pre-game warmup in Philadelphia last Monday was that the Canucks could bring in DiPietro and the 2017 third-round draft pick would gather invaluable experience and intel practising with NHL players and working with Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark while Markstrom played.

And during the two weeks or so Demko would miss, Canucks general manager Jim Benning and his staff would continue to search for an inexpensive, suitable “third goalie” to bring into the organization for depth. They never found one in time.

DiPietro lost his first NHL start 7-2 to the San Jose Sharks.

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The Canucks’ veteran minor-league goalie, Richard Bachmann, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury with the Utica Comets on Dec. 21. And the organization’s plan to replace him went awry on Jan. 4 when Mike McKenna was claimed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers, a couple of days after the Canucks acquired him from the Ottawa Senators in exchange for NHL backup Anders Nilsson. Nilsson was moved in order to make room in the NHL for Demko.

In the 31 days between losing McKenna and Demko, the Canucks searched for another goalie but neither acquired nor signed one. They have former NHLer Michael Leighton in the minors on a professional tryout.

So DiPietro was thrown literally to the Sharks.

Talented and promising as Team Canada’s world junior championship starter is, DiPietro isn’t ready to start games in the NHL. Almost no 19-year-olds are. Not in goal.

DiPietro had an NHL goal-against before he had an NHL save. The Sharks, one of the best and highest-scoring teams in the league, scored three times on their first five shots.

“Anytime you let three in on five, it’s definitely not an ideal start,” DiPietro told reporters. “But the next puck is coming. That’s what I kept telling myself: ‘I’ve got to be ready for it.’ It’s tough mentally, but you’ve got to be ready for anything this game throws at you.

“Some adversity has been thrown, but it’s OK. It’s something I can definitely learn from and work towards bettering my game and bettering myself.”

By late in the second period, DiPietro had improved his save percentage to .600, having allowed six goals on 15 shots.

A couple of San Jose goals came from deflections, a couple from atrocious defending in front of DiPietro. So the Ottawa 67s goalie had neither luck nor much help. But he also looked overmatched, unaccustomed to NHL speed and puck movement and the ability of even fourth-liners at this level to release the puck quickly and with velocity.

“The start that we had, you put that on us,” veteran Jay Beagle said. “We had to be better. Especially with a guy starting his first NHL game, you don’t want to start like that.

“For anyone coming in and playing, never mind their first NHL game, you want to allow them to feel the puck. Lock it down defensively and let them settle in. That first goal goes in (after 64 seconds) and that can’t happen. It just can’t happen. That’s not how you want a guy to start the game. Put that on my line.”

Beagle and wingers Loui Eriksson and Tyler Motte stood in a triangle in the low slot and watched Timo Meier stand unchecked between them as he converted Logan Couture’s pass to make it 1-0. On the next goal, at 3:22, Evander Kane’s harmless flip towards the net was gloved backwards by Canuck defenceman Ben Hutton and blocked into the goal by DiPietro. At 8:48 of the first, still four minutes before San Jose goalie Martin Jones was required to make a save, Melker Karlsson deflected in Brent Burns’ point shot. And so it went.

“We definitely weren’t good enough in front of him,” the Canucks’ Bo Horvat said of DiPietro. “We had to be better defensively for him, especially early. When you’ve got a young goalie like that, his first NHL game, you can’t go 8-0 shots (against) in the first five or 10 minutes. That’s never going to end well.”

“It’s not them,” DiPietro said of the blame. “It falls on me, too. I’ve got to be better. The guys have been great with me and made me feel welcome. These guys, you want to play for them. I appreciate all they did.”

It’s hard to see how DiPietro benefitted from this experience. And it’s even harder to imagine Canucks management letting it continue. If Markstrom doesn’t report to work Tuesday with the vigour and chipperness of someone in a Viagra commercial, Benning has to find another goalie.

And even if Markstrom, who sat on the bench Monday but wasn’t going to play under any circumstance, feels great, will his unspecified injury actually allow him to play back-to-back road games against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, starting Wednesday?

Including Saturday’s visit to the Shark tank, the Canucks have three games in four nights in California and are desperate to cling to the Western Conference playoff race that nobody expected Vancouver to be in. Demko isn’t expected to be available for any of these games.

We understand Benning’s refusal to surrender an asset for another team’s third or fourth-string goalie when the player may never be needed to start a game for the Canucks. But unsigned goalies like Leighton cost nothing but a little money – and that money will be paid on a two-way deal.

How much are the playoffs worth?

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