The Vancouver Canucks are packing their bags and heading home from the Edmonton bubble after an unbelievable playoff run ended in disappointing fashion Friday night.
Still, the club should feel nothing but pride in what they accomplished, winning two series — including one against the defending Stanley Cup champions — and pushing one of the NHL’s best teams to a 0-0 tie mid-way through the third period of Game 7.
Of course, the biggest reason their series with the Vegas Golden Knights even got to that point was goaltending, but it wasn’t Jacob Markstrom holding the fort. Instead, rookie sensation Thatcher Demko almost single handedly led the Canucks to the upset with three huge performances in Games 5, 6 and 7.
Now, general manager Jim Benning has the very difficult task of deciding whether Demko has shown enough to be a primary starter or if Markstrom — a pending free agent — should be offered a contract to return.
Whichever way Benning chooses to go will shape the Canucks for years to come.
The case for re-signing Markstrom…
Markstrom chose a great time to peak.
With the most important contract negotiation of his career looming, the 30-year-old put together a great season, with a 23-16-4 record, .918 save percentage and .925 save rate at 5-on-5. That continued in the playoffs where he upped his numbers slightly to a .919 save percentage overall and .941 rate at 5-on-5 in 14 starts, eight of which required him to make more than 30 saves. When the Vezina Trophy voting results are revealed during the Stanley Cup Final, his name will appear on more than one ballot.
Markstrom joined the Canucks from the Florida Panthers as part of the return in the 2014 Roberto Luongo trade and is the third-longest serving player on the current roster. If these playoffs are any indication, Vancouver is entering a win-now window and his unquantifiable veteran presence would be a valuable asset. Markstrom is a known commodity to the Canucks and replacing him with another goalie with a comparable resume from outside the organization would be risky and could be costly, whether in salary or trade assets.
Most teams that have gone on deep playoff runs in recent years have done so with a strong goaltending tandem splitting time during the regular season, allowing the starter to be fresh come playoff time. With Markstrom and Demko sharing the net, the Canucks have that coveted split. The duo started 70 of the Canucks’ 72 games this season, with Markstrom getting into 43 of them. After 57 and 60 starts in each of the last two seasons, when his backup was primarily Anders Nilsson, Markstrom was able to rest a bit more this season. The pandemic pause makes it difficult to evaluate how much that factored into the Canucks’ deep playoff run, but it certainly didn’t hurt it.
The case for naming Demko the No. 1 starter…
Money makes the world go ’round and the cap-ceiling Canucks don’t have much of it to spend. The team was already going to be forced to make some difficult decisions this off-season before a global pandemic turned off the economic tap, and now with the salary cap staying flat for at least two years, there’s even less room to work with. Beyond Markstrom, some important skaters have expiring contracts that need to be extended or replaced, including Tyler Toffoli, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher and Jake Virtanen.
One way Benning could save some money is in goal.
On the open market, Markstrom could command $6-million a year or more, a significant raise from the $3.66 million he made this season. By pairing Demko, who has a $1.05-million cap hit for one more season before becoming a restricted free agent, with a cheaper back-up like Brian Elliott or Cam Talbot, Benning could open up some salary cap room to bolster his blue line or to add more forward depth. The Canucks allowed an average of 33.3 shots against this season, fourth-most in the NHL, so investing in skaters who can lower that total could offset Demko’s inexperience.
Some other factors are at play in Demko’s favour. One of them is the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, set to happen after the 2020-21 season ends, whenever that may be. The Canucks can only protect one goalie from their new northwest rivals so signing Markstrom long-term could expose Demko to be taken freely by the Kraken. While that would only add more fuel to the rivalry from a fan’s perspective, the Canucks would be setting themselves back by losing their goalie of the future that way.
Markstrom’s injury history should also factor into the decision. He’s had knee issues in the past and in late February he had a minor-knee procedure that would have potentially forced him to miss the remainder of the season had the pandemic not paused play. Plus, while it’s still not fully clear what ailment caused Markstrom to miss the final three games of the Golden Knights series, it was concerning enough that he didn’t dress as the backup in any of the games.
Demko’s historic week in the Edmonton bubble, where he stopped 123 of 125 shots faced in three games, is one variable to this equation, too, but a decision like this isn’t made based on small sample size. However, the young goalie’s track record of success extends far beyond three playoff games.
Originally a second-round pick by the Canucks in 2014, Demko starred in three years at Boston College, winning the Mike Richter Award as NCAA goalie of the year in 2016 and finishing as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award that same season. He then posted a 55-36-5 record in parts of three AHL seasons before being promoted to the NHL full time this year. Demko held his own in 25 starts this season, winning 13 times, but his .905 save percentage and 3.06 goals-against average both ranked outside the top-30 among goalies with at least 20 appearances.
Demko is far from a sure thing and the Canucks would probably prefer to have him develop a little longer as a backup. But with Markstrom’s contract up, Benning has to choose a goalie to bet the future of his team on now. It won’t be an easy decision.