Canucks Goaltenders: Playoff Caliber?

“Three on none.” This is a situation that no goaltender would ever dare to face. However, for Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom this nightmare became a reality on Nov. 5 against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the St. Louis Blues. Tyler Myers’ dicey decision to join the offensive rush proved costly as the lumbering giant’s shot severely missed the net, springing all three Blues the other way with no players to stop them. To make matters worse, Myers’ 12-foot long legs (pending measurement confirmation), tripped and therefore eliminated teammate JT Miller from the play. The result of this fiasco was a goal for Jaden Schwartz that gave the Blues a 2-1 overtime victory.

Do Not Blame Markstrom

Anybody blaming the result of this game on Markstrom might have been indulging in Vancouver’s notorious herbs a little bit too much during the game. The 29-year-old Swede was absolutely spectacular as he has been for the last season and a half. However, the aforementioned scenario, where the Canucks continually let their goaltenders down, was par for the course last season, when they finished in a dismal 23rd place. Last season, the Canucks as a team had many glaring holes, but goaltending was not one of them. Markstrom won the Cyclone Taylor Trophy, awarded to the team MVP, to add to his back-to-back Molson Cups that honours the player on the team with the most first-star selections.

Jacob Markstrom Vancouver Canucks
Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This season has been different, as the game against the Blues was the first time this season Canucks fans have experienced such a let-down. The Canucks are currently tied for fourth in the Pacific Division and have been an elite team through the first 15 games. The team’s save percentage of 91.6% ranks well above the league average of just 90.4%. While scoring in the offensive end is above average, currently 12th in the league, the same can also be said for the defensive unit which has earned them the fifth spot for goals against on a per-game basis. This is thanks to the bolstering of depth at defensemen position over the offseason but also due to Markstrom and Demko outplaying their competition.

Feeling Fresh for the Playoffs

Having two reliable goaltenders secured for under $5 million gives the team an advantage over many teams who invest a lot of salary in a netminder who is expected to play 70 or more games. Competitive duos allow for goalies feeling fresh going into the playoffs after gaining valuable rest during the season.

Table of the regular season games played for the Stanley Cup Final starting goalies since 2015-16.

Reflecting on the previous four Stanley Cup Finals starting netminders proves that goaltenders experience the most playoff success when playing around 45 to 50 regular season games. Markstrom is currently on pace to play around 55 games while Demko plays the remaining 27. However, the future belongs to Demko, and he can be expected to steal a portion of those games away from Markstrom. The American already possesses respectable career statistics during his limited time, improving his goals-against average, save percentage and wins during his small increments playing in the NHL.

Early into this season, Demko has improved his technical game and positioning, which was considered his main flaw. Soon, the younger Demko will be polished enough to become an NHL starter. Goaltending controversy in Vancouver? Does that sound familiar? Having too many phenomenal goalies is a good issue to have. Flashback to 2013 when former Canucks goalie, Cory Schneider, was playing out of his mind. This allowed the team to trade him for a high draft pick, as they already had a capable goalie in Roberto Luongo. That high draft pick was recently named captain, Bo Horvat.

Future Is Bright with Demko

Luckily, the Canucks have time and options with respect to the future of the goaltending situation. Markstrom is playing the best hockey of his life and has earned the starting job. Demko continues to impress in limited time as the backup, although he needs more reps until he is ready to become the starter. Vancouver will ride whichever goalie provides them with the most success for the remainder of the season. Suppose the Canucks are not in a playoff position come the trade deadline, then Markstrom and his expiring contract could become trade bait.

One would figure that the Canucks will protect the younger Demko during the 2021 Seattle Expansion Draft. However, there are possibilities where Markstrom remains with the Canucks. They may decide to leave Demko unprotected and re-sign Markstrom, or they could work out a deal with Seattle general manager Ron Francis that would send Seattle a package in agreement not to select the unprotected Markstrom. This is similar to the trades former Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee orchestrated in 2017. With the early season success the Canucks have had, it would be shocking to see either goaltender moved before the season ends.

Vancouver Canucks' goalie Thatcher Demko
Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

 Albeit many are still questioning whether the duo of Markstrom and Demko are good enough for the Canucks to make a deep playoff run and rightfully so, as neither have ever played a playoff game in the NHL.

Playoff Inexperience

However, this is not to say that they lack experience in high pressure games. Most recently, in 2015, the 6-foot-6 Markstrom, led the Canucks American Hockey League affiliate, the Utica Comets, to a Calder Cup Final while posting a stellar .925 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average, according to A few future NHL stars that Markstrom defeated during this run were Jordan Binnington, Dylan Larkin, and Anthony Mantha. In addition, he has also won a World Championship and World Junior silver medal with his native Sweden. Demko has also experienced a professional playoff series with the Comets, being a key contributor on the team that pushed the heavily favoured, and league leading, Toronto Marlies to an elimination game in 2018.

The Canucks in general are playing some of their best hockey in years. The main difference is that the rest of the team has finally caught up to the stellar play its goaltending has been displaying in recent years. If the Canucks do not make a playoff run this season, it is hard to imaging placing the blame on the team’s play between the pipes. Instead, expect Markstrom and Demko to force the Canucks to make some difficult decisions when the Seattle Expansion Draft begins due to their superb play. But that’s another discussion for another day.