Canucks’ Jacob Markstrom turns 30 playing some of his best hockey

After winning 13 of their last 16 games, the Vancouver Canucks find themselves on top of the Pacific Division. Danielle Michaud speaks to NHL Insider Dan Murphy about the team's chances for a healthy playoff run.

VANCOUVER – Even when the Vancouver Canucks are winning, it is not hard to find an argument regarding the team. Except over their most valuable player this season.

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes are game-changers, literally and for the outlook of the National Hockey League franchise. But no one has been as important to the Canucks this season as goalie Jacob Markstrom, whose save percentage (.917), wins (19) and minutes-played (2,072) heading into Saturday’s matinee against the New York Islanders do not fully reflect the impact of the Swede who turned 30 on Friday.

Markstrom has evolved into a top-10 starter in the NHL, a galvanizing leader on a team that plays high-event hockey and has needed its goaltender to be its best player on many nights this season. Markstrom’s salary will reflect his status when he signs his next contract on or before July 1.

Although negotiations between Markstrom and the team remain in the early stages, Canucks general manager Jim Benning has publicly pledged to keep his starting goalie, who has made it clear that he loves Vancouver and wants to stay.

"He likes the guys on the team and the guys like him," Benning told Sportsnet two weeks ago. "We’re going to get that figured out so he can remain playing for us."

The goaltender market is always tricky, and the free-agent class of 2020 could include A-list starters Braden Holtby and Robin Lehner, as well as reliable (and more affordable) B-listers like Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin and Thomas Greiss.

And, of course, the situation in Vancouver is especially intriguing because backup goalie Thatcher Demko, under contract next season at just $1.05 million, is only 24 years old and shows every indication of developing into a star. Too bad he has played only 27 games in the NHL.

Whether Markstrom eventually signs a multi-year contract that includes a salary beginning with a five or six, whatever he and the Canucks settle on will affect Demko.

There is, after all, that little matter of the Seattle expansion draft in 17 months, when teams will be able to protect only one goalie.

But with time on the Canucks’ side and a lot of options open to Benning to try to protect both goalies from Seattle or trade one of them before the expansion draft, there probably has been too much short-term focus on how a Markstrom contract will affect Demko and not enough about how it could impact several other players on a team scraping its head against the salary ceiling.

Any Markstrom deal in Vancouver is going to have a trickle-down effect that goes well beyond the goal crease.

According to CapFriendly.com, the Canucks have $63.5 million committed to 16 players next season. This includes Sven Baertschi’s cap charge of $2.3 million for playing in the American Hockey League, the ongoing cap-recapture penalty of $3 million on Roberto Luongo and the final year of the Ryan Spooner buyout at $1 million.

Of course, it also includes the $6 million on Loui Eriksson’s buyout-proof contract, although "Little Things" Loui has been doing some big things lately and for once in his three-and-a-half seasons on the West Coast is not a focal point of fan discontentment.

With the NHL Players’ Association suppressing the salary cap because its constituency either doesn’t like or understand escrow, the spending limit for next season won’t be increasing much beyond the current ceiling of $81.5 million. The cap is expected to be set in the $83-83.5 million range.

Since the Canucks are operating at the cap limit this season and haven’t left space for $3.7 million in performances bonuses likely going to entry-level stars Pettersson and Hughes, that significant charge will be rolled into next season’s cap expenses.

So an $83.5-million salary cap in 2020-21 could leave the Canucks with as little as $16.3 million to spend.

And more than half of that could be eaten up by new deals for Markstrom (let’s say $5.5 million per season) and valuable defenceman Chris Tanev, the Canucks’ other key unrestricted free agent, who could get close to the $4.45 million he is making this year.

Restricted-free-agent-winger Jake Virtanen needs to be re-signed and, with a breakthrough season and arbitration rights, should get at least as much as newly-signed Edmonton Oilers power forward Zack Kassian, whose comparable offensive numbers earned him $3.2 million for each of the next four years.

Once the Canucks give modest raises to RFAs Tyler Motte ($975,000 salary this season) and Adam Gaudette ($917,000), and likely re-sign injured UFA Josh Leivo ($1.5 million), their cap space for 2020-21 could be down to zero.

That would leave no money to re-sign 25-year-old defenceman Troy Stecher, a solid player who is making $2.3 million but has seen his average ice time limited to 14:46 this season.

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The Canucks will also have a handful of prospects, including Nils Hoglander, Olli Juolevi and Kole Lind, pushing to make the NHL team in September on entry-level deals.

Benning may try cutting some costs before then. Defenceman Jordie Benn has been scratched for 13 of the last 14 games. He and his $2 million salary should be easily tradeable if Benning is willing to dare the hockey gods to go after what has been an uncharacteristically healthy Vancouver blue line this season.

Checking centre Brandon Sutter has another season after this one at $4.4 million and could be traded (with retained salary) or bought out in June. The Canucks continue to look for an exit on Baertschi.

Maybe the team makes a hard decision and keeps a younger, cheaper Stecher over Tanev. And if you’re in the mood for hard decisions, there is a question about where Brock Boeser will fit long-term among the hierarchy of outstanding and expensive young Canucks, not all of whom Benning will be able to keep.

No wonder within the organization there is a strong feeling, growing in urgency with every new win, that the surprising Canucks need to do everything they can to maximize this season and see how far they might go this spring. Because this summer, there will be salary-cap casualties.

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