How did that happen? That’s the question many Vancouver Canucks fans were asking themselves when 19-year-old junior netminder Michael DiPietro found himself in between the pipes for in their recent 7-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks.
While the Vancouver Canucks organization has long been regarded as a goalie graveyard, the team has seen its fair share of fantastic goaltending throughout the years. In Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, fans were treated to some of the games best goaltending and a stable situation in the crease. Early February of 2019, however, was the exact opposite.
The Canucks started off with the same back end of the rink as last season, not only were they returning with the same two goaltenders in Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson, they also returned with the same defence core — but that is a topic for another time.
Neither Nilsson nor Markstrom made a solid case in 2017-18 to be the starting netminder, meaning the spot between the pipes this season was up for grabs. It was hoped that prospect Thatcher Demko could nab the backup position, but spotty play and a pre-season injury ruled that possibility out.
Markstrom would suffer an early-season injury, setting him back yet again and leaving the starting position to Nilsson for the time being, as well as warranting a call up of Utica Comet’s netminder Richard Bachman. Bachman played one game during his time with the team, falling to the Minnesota Wild in a lacklustre effort.
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After returning from injury, Markstrom soon solidified himself as a starting netminder — rounding into a new found form just before the Christmas break. December saw him put up a career-best .943 save percentage, and he has barely slowed down since then — sitting at a .914 on the season, well above league average.
While Markstrom was lighting it up for the Canucks, Demko was finally healthy and ready to assume his role as the Canucks backup. However, the Canucks now faced the first of their goaltending problems — what to do with their then current backup goalie, Nilsson.
The Canucks solved this problem, trading Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators in a package with Darren Archibald for Tom Pyatt, a sixth-round pick, and minor league netminder Mike McKenna. This allowed the Canucks to call up Demko, and send McKenna down to the AHL with the Comets.
The problem with McKenna was he would have to clear waivers to get to Utica. Unfortunately for the Canucks, McKenna was claimed by the Philadelphia Flyers, leaving Vancouver with only two healthy goaltenders on NHL contracts, and Utica with ECHL level netminder Ivan Kulbakov as the starter. The Comets would have to call upon a series of other ECHL goalies to fill the void on PTO’s while Jim Benning and co looked for a solution.
Now with Markstrom and Demko in the NHL, the Canucks were taking a massive risk, and their situation went from bad to worse once it was revealed that Demko had suffered yet another injury. The Demko injury triggered the emergency call up of Team Canada world junior goalie and 2018 draft pick, Michael DiPietro.
Fresh off disappointment in Vancouver as part of the world juniors, the 19-year-old found himself in the NHL. One would think that the Canucks would go out and make a trade or sign a goaltender as soon as possible after this, but instead, they decided to ride Markstrom hoping he would not falter.
Many suspected the Canucks were waiting for the flyers to waive McKenna, but that was never confirmed by the club, and indeed never happened.
Enter the fateful night of February 11th, 2019, Markstrom was injured and Canucks head coach Travis Green had no choice other than to throw the very raw Dipietro into the net to make his NHL debut against one of the best teams in the NHL. It went about as well as you’d expect. First shot? Goal. The night didn’t get much better, with DiPietro allowing seven goals on 24 shots.
“Mikey” as DiPietro likes to be called, admitted he wasn’t ready to be in the NHL just yet, but took the experience in stride, giving a very upbeat post-game interview despite being shellacked by the opposition. It was DiPietro’s only start during his time with the Canucks, and the organization is lucky for that.
After suffering their second goaltending injury issue of the year, management finally found a solution to their problems. They traded the seventh-round pick acquired for Michael Del Zotto to nab New York Rangers minor leaguer Marek Mazanec.
Unlike McKenna, Mazanec did not require waivers, allowing him to be directly assigned to Utica. However, despite signing Mazanec, Utica still had Kulbakov as a backup. In response to this, the club signed 37-year-old Michael Leighton to a one year NHL contract, giving him the backup AHL position to close out his journeyman career.
The Canucks did solve their goaltending issues in the end, and at time of writing have 4 healthy goalies on professional contracts. The question remains though — how did this happen? It took six weeks and an embarrassing PR situation for Benning to solve the issues.
If the trade for Mazanec was there, or Leighton was able to sign, why did it take so long for the Canucks to solve this problem? We will never know the exact answer, whether it was hoping for McKenna to become available again, or some other reason. What this whole bonanza did show was that this management group is fine taking risks, but can at times lack foresight.
Everything is finally right now for the Canucks goaltending. Markstrom continues to be outstanding as the starter, Demko has solidified himself as the backup, and Utica finally has two professional goalies. All fans and players can hope for now is that a situation like this never happens again.