The Vancouver Canucks will have one of their best tandems in years in the form of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, but should the two split starts?
There was talk of Anders Nilsson and Jacob Markstrom having a “healthy competition” for the job of starting goaltender for the Vancouver Canucks just a year ago. With Nilsson gone via trade midway through this past season, 2014 second-round pick Thatcher Demko is ready to be the Canucks’ backup for a full season.
Just yesterday, in the latest addition to my “how bad is it?” series, I looked at the goaltending situation. As I mentioned in that article, Markstrom was performing well above league average from December to the end of the season in terms of save percentage. Markstrom had a breakout year last year, and as I said yesterday, many people, including myself, believe that it’s sustainable.
This is partly thanks to Canucks’ goaltending coach Ian Clark, who helped shape Sergei Bobrovsky into a two-time Vezina Trophy winner during his tenure in Columbus with the Blue Jackets. Nearly every single goaltender who has worked with Clark has given their coach high praise.
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Markstrom loves working with Clark, and I personally can’t see Markstrom taking a step backwards next year. The thing that worries the most is the Seattle expansion draft in June of 2021. The Canucks, like every other team, will be permitted to protect only one goaltender. That means they’ll likely have to give up one of Markstrom or Demko.
Michael DiPietro won’t be eligible to be picked by Seattle, but both Markstrom and Demko will be. So who do you protect? At that time, Markstrom will be 31 years old and Demko will be 25. After having a career year last season with the Canucks, it’s hard to predict where Markstrom, who becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season, will be in terms of his abilities to backstop a (hopefully regular) playoff team.
So why does the expansion draft even matter in terms of next year? Because Demko wants to play. Just like any other player, the more you play at the NHL level, the more you learn what it takes to be successful at the highest level. Chances are, when this team is ready to compete for a Stanley Cup, Demko will almost certainly be the goaltender who starts. Why else is he called the goaltender of the future?
So the answer should be simple, right? If the Canucks want to do what’s best for Demko’s development then they will surely elect to have him split starts with Markstrom. That’s where the problem arises. The Canucks have made it clear with their moves this offseason that their goal next season is to make the playoffs.
Now, I’m sure Demko and Markstrom splitting starting duties in the regular season could work out just fine. But no one wants to see the Canucks make the playoffs and not win once they get there. In my opinion, having a goaltending tandem who split starts with each other during the regular season can cause problems in the postseason. Neither goaltender can really find their groove, and you can’t really blame them.
Look no further than the Calgary Flames, whose goaltenders, Mike Smith and David Rittich, split starts in the regular season. That was all fine and dandy, as the Flames finished first in the Pacific division. The problems, however, arose in the playoffs, when the Flames, who didn’t have a clear cut starter (Rittich played 45 games while Smith played 42), elected to go with Smith.
Smith managed to win only one game in the playoffs, and the Flames were eliminated by the wildcard Colorado Avalanche. My guess is the Canucks would do something similar with Markstrom being the playoff starter if he and Demko were to split starts in the regular season. It may be better for Demko’s development, and in the long run, could be more beneficial for the Canucks.
In terms of next season, however, I think the Canucks should keep Markstrom as the starter if he continues his beyond exceptional level of play that we saw from him last season. It’s a tough call, but I’m thinking that the Canucks will elect to ride the hot hand. If this next season plays out like the latter half of last season did, then that hot hand will be Markstrom.
All in all, I’d be willing to bet that both goaltenders will have fantastic years next year. To me, giving Markstrom 50-60 starts and Demko 20-30 is best. It allows Demko to develop his game, while at the same time making sure that Markstrom knows that he is this team’s starter.
It will be interesting to see how the goaltending situation in Vancouver plays out this year, and in my opinion, I believe that the team will go with Markstrom as the starter for next season. If they make the playoffs, he is going to be their guy, and he is going to know that he’s their guy too, thanks to being that guy all season long.