FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – When you’re showering your opposition with scoring and shooting opportunities the way the Vancouver Canucks did Thursday, it really doesn’t matter who’s in goal.
Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko could have both been in net against the Florida Panthers – that would be a total of 12 feet, 10 inches of goaltending — and the Canucks probably still would have lost thanks to surrendering 49 shots and double-digit outnumbered rushes.
As it turns out, Demko started instead of Markstrom, allowed the first two shots to beat him on grade A scoring chances in the opening three minutes, then made 44 saves in a 5-2 loss that was not as close as it looked.
Coach Travis Green’s selection of Demko was a little surprising only because Markstrom was eager for redemption after an embarrassing 9-2 loss in Tampa on Tuesday, when Vancouver’s starter got the final 22 minutes off and his backup didn’t look very good in relief, either.
But Markstrom had started 12 of the previous 13 games. If the Canucks are to stay in the fight for the National Hockey League playoffs, they need to manage the No. 1 goalie’s workload by giving Demko more appearances.
The subplot to all of this, of course, is Markstrom’s potential exit as an unrestricted free agent after this season and contract negotiations that have yet to get past the preliminary stage.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning confirmed during Thursday’s game that there hasn’t been much progress made yet between the team and Markstrom’s agent, Pat Morris.
The sides are still too far from free agency on July 1 for there to be any real urgency in negotiations, especially since there seems little chance at this point that Benning might deal Markstrom if there isn’t an extension before the NHL trade deadline on Feb. 24.
"I do not think about it one bit," Markstrom told Sportsnet before this road trip, which sees the Canucks play back-to-back matinee games in Buffalo and Minnesota this weekend. "This second half (of the season) is important for everybody in this room. I feel like we’ve got a team to get in the playoffs. The fans have really rallied behind us this season and you can feel the buzz. People are starting to get excited.
"You can’t think: ‘I’m doing this for me. If I play good, I’m going to get signed.’ I’m not worried about it. But you’ve got to play good."
The slow start to negotiations may also be indicative of just how tricky these discussions will be with Demko, 24, viewed by the Canucks as a future starter, since Markstrom, 29, is in a strong position to command a contract with considerably more money and term than his expiring three-year, $11 million deal.
With two concussions in two seasons and just 25 NHL games of experience, Demko certainly doesn’t look ready to be a starter next season despite his stellar pedigree. And, as it has been explained many times, there is also the 2021 Seattle expansion draft to consider, although Benning told us last month he isn’t worried about potentially having to make a side deal with Seattle to keep both Canucks goalies.
"There’s a lot of time between now and the expansion draft," Benning said. "We’ll figure that out as we get closer."
There are complications for Markstrom’s side, too.
He isn’t going to have the goaltending UFA market to himself. Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, 30, is expected to headline a goalie class that could also include 28-year-old Robin Lehner and several dependable veterans — Jaroslav Halak, Anton Khudobin and Thomas Greiss — who could probably be signed to short-term deals. And the goalie trade market will loosen ahead of the Seattle draft.
With so many tentacles to the Canucks’ goaltending situation and 38 starts remaining this season, the future of Markstrom and Demko makes for compelling conjecture. But not for them.
"Everyone in that room is focused on making the playoffs," Demko said. "That’s what I love about this team; guys put themselves aside (individually) for the betterment of the team. Marky and I are in that boat ourselves.
"We’re always talking. We’re good friends. It’s not something where we’re competing with each other; we’re trying to help each other. If one guy is playing, we’re going to support him. That’s something I really respect about our relationship. And that’s something that will stay the same moving forward."
Markstrom has been the Canucks’ most valuable player this season. His 15-12-3 record includes a 43-save shutout against Carolina, a 49-save 3-2 win against Los Angeles and five wins when facing 40 or more shots. The Swede’s .914 save rate is well above the NHL average of .908, despite Markstrom’s season being interrupted twice due to the terminal illness and subsequent death of his father back home.
Demko, who is from San Diego, is 8-5-1 with a .903 save percentage. He said he hasn’t even considered the ramifications of Markstrom’s uncertain future.
"No, not at all," he said.