As the Vancouver Canucks battle vainly for a wildcard spot, the thoughts of Canucks fans are already moving on to next season and the endless possibilities it brings. Today, we ask who should keep net for the Canucks in 2019-20.
There was once a time when Vancouver Canucks fans were convinced that Jacob Markstrom was never going to be a starting netminder in the NHL. Having come to the Canucks in the deal that saw franchise legend Roberto Luongo move back home to Florida, Markstrom had lofty expectations placed upon him from the very beginning. It was only once those expectations had been lowered that Markstrom has truly begun to shine.
When looking at the Canucks’ potential roster for 2019-20, there are a great many question marks. Where will Nikolay Goldobin, Sven Baertschi, Jake Virtanen and Josh Leivo fit? How many of the current defense will return? How can we make the team healthier, to help them build consistency rather than playing every other game with a changed lineup?
One big question facing Jim Benning is this: who will backup Jacob Markstrom in the Canucks’ goal?
Markstrom is the starter
Next season’s roster has some absolute dead certs — Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, Troy Stecher, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Adam Gaudette are all sure-fire locks to be on this team come the fall. So too is Jacob Markstrom, after a stellar season under testing conditions that has seen him post a career-high 27 wins, a goals against average of 2.74 and a save percentage of .913%.
After such a fine season, Markstrom now sits fifth all-time in franchise history with 75 wins — more than Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider, Gary Smith and Glen Hanlon. With 35 more wins between now and the end of next season (and the end of his current bargain contract), Markstrom would move ahead of Dan Cloutier into 4th all-time for the Canucks. While he still has many years to go to catch up with Roberto Luongo’s franchise-leading 252 wins, Jacob Markstrom has quietly gone about his business and stated his case as one of the very best goalies in franchise history.
Thatcher Demko, the heir presumptive
With Jacob Markstrom the clear and unrivaled number one goalie for the Vancouver Canucks, the question of who should provide back up services is a tough one.
On the one hand, long-time blue-chip goalie prospect Thatcher Demko has been primed for the task for some time now – but unsettled by a lack of playing time, and injuries upsetting his rhythm, he sports a GAA of 3.40 and a rather unsightly .889% save percentage. It’s only the first seven games of his career – but would Demko be better served by spending more time with the Utica Comets?
The development of Demko has been a long, drawn-out process, and one that Vancouver Canucks fans had hoped was coming to an end when he made his NHL debut against the Colombus Blue Jackets back in March 2018.
Once the Canucks sent former backup Anders Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators it was hoped that Demko would make a seamless transition to the big league, and give the Canucks a top-tier goaltending tandem for the remainder of this season and next. With Demko missing nine games with a knee injury and not yet truly at the races, it could be argued that the Vancouver Canucks ought to give Demko — still just 23 years old — one more year in Utica.
For those Canucks fans with shorter memories, Demko is currently following a similar career path to that of another former top goalie prospect, Cory Schneider. Schneider played a total of 10 games through the end of his age-23 year, then had his coming out show in his age-24 season by winning 16 games with a .929% save percentage.
By the time Schneider was traded to the New Jersey Devils for the draft pick that allowed the Canucks to select Bo Horvat, he had amassed 55 wins in 98 games played, with a GAA of 2.20 and a save percentage of .927%. It’s ludicrous to expect similar from Demko, but he has had the same slow-burning development and will surely come good with a summer of training and full health.
Sign a veteran backup
The safest course of action would be for the Vancouver Canucks to sign a veteran backup for one year, to give Demko one final round of development before pushing him into the NHL full-time. It is something the Canucks have already done in signing Anders Nilsson to his original deal – this time, there are much better options on the market for Jim Benning to pursue.
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There are several attractive options, and all of them could be fairly cost-effective for Benning. Chief among the list of potential bargain backups is Curtis McElhinney of the Carolina Hurricanes, who went from the waiver wire in Oct. 2018 to 19 wins in 30 games, with a GAA of 2.53 and a save percentage of .915%.
There is a strong chance that he re-signs with the Canes but if he is allowed to depart (with Petr Mrazek expected to sign a long-term deal as their starter) then there could be no better backup for Markstrom.
However, there are younger alternatives to 35 year-old McElhinney. Brian Elliott is now 33, but has put together Markstrom-like numbers in playing 25 games for the Philadelphia Flyers this season. Keith Kinkaid, now a rental for the Columbus Blue Jackets, would also be a serviceable backup but suffers from poor numbers earned behind a dire New Jersey Devils blueline.
A romantic reunion with Ryan Miller might be mutually-beneficial, but unlikely. Benning could also look at former number ones fighting to keep their spot in the NHL – the likes of Cam Ward, Mike Smith, Cam Talbot and Antti Niemi would all be fairly cheap, and potentially willing to play the understudy to Markstrom.
Vancouver Canucks fans will be right behind Jacob Markstrom next season, as the giant Swede has had himself quite the year amongst the many ups-and-downs of his team throughout the course of this long season.
Who gets to aid him next season remains to be seen; the smart money would be on Thatcher Demko cementing his place on the team, but Jim Benning may feel that signing a proven backup on a one-year deal may help this team progress further. Whatever the tandem, we look forward to more of the reliable goaltending that Jacob Markstrom has provided this season.