It probably isn’t bold to say Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom has been the team’s best player this season.
With all due respect to Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and J.T. Miller, it’s been Markstrom who has, at times, carried this team to victories. When he went down with injury, his absence was felt immediately. The incumbent starting goaltender, Thatcher Demko, was thrust into a less-than-ideal situation. A young goaltender took over a team relying on it’s Vezina Trophy-calibre starter and the early results went about as well as you’d think.
In reality, Markstrom has possibly played himself out of the Canucks’ budget. With numerous contracts expiring in July and the team pressed against the cap, tough decisions need to be made. With Markstrom’s contract negotiations going a bit sideways, it isn’t out of the question that life without the All-Star goalie may be coming soon.
For a team hoping to turn the corner now, Demko’s play may seem to suggest he isn’t quite ready for the full-time starting job. His play over the last four games has been excellent, no doubt, but it’s asking a lot for him to step into Markstrom’s massive shoes next season.
If the Canucks truly cannot afford to keep Markstrom, signing a steady veteran goaltender to share the workload with Demko may be the way to go. The question would then become: who should it be? To answer this question, I relied on the following criteria:
- Unrestricted free agent (UFA). The goaltender had to be set to become a UFA on July 1.
- Cost. The goaltender could not potentially earn a salary comparable to what Markstrom would make.
- Ability. The new goaltender would have to be a solid performer and able to share a starter’s workload.
Dallas Stars’ goaltender Anton Khudobin has consistently been a strong second goalie. Over the last three seasons, he ranks first in 5-on-5 save percentage (SV%) among goalies who have played at least 1000 minutes.
In the same sample, he has also saved 31.72 goals above average (GSAA), good for third in the NHL. His 84.50% high-danger save percentage (HDSV%) ranks 14th over the same period. For high-danger shots against, that’s actually a strong number.
Khudobin’s play has been extremely strong and he has looked like an elite 1-B goaltender. One thing to note of his sterling results would be he plays behind a stingy defence. The Stars play a tight system and typically allow even less scoring chances than usual with him in the net.
The blue spots on the charts indicate areas where fewer shots are taken, while red spots are indicative of more shots. The Stars do an excellent job of keeping opponents away from the net, limiting high danger chances against and helping their goaltenders.
Related: NHL Power Rankings for March 2020
The other factor against Khudobin is age. He’ll be 34 when he hits UFA this summer and could start experiencing an age-related decline. However, with his strong play over his age 32 and 33 seasons, some concerns would be alleviated.
Sticking with the theme of quality veteran 1-B goalie, the Canucks could look to old rival Boston Bruins goalie Jaroslav Halak. Halak has been a strong goalie over the last three seasons in his own right, possessing the 15th best 5-on-5 SV% of all goalies with at least 1000 minutes played.
The Bruins are also a strong defensive team, but the defence has been slightly weaker with Halak in goal.
Halak has been a steadying presence for the Bruins and his loss is something they likely cannot afford. Starting goalie Tuukka Rask looks like a different goalie with the lighter workload and the play of his backup has allowed for that. With two strong backups over the last four years, Rask has seen a steady rise in his play and has been a keystone player for his squad. Halak has been a key contributor and is the kind of goalie who could help Demko grow into the starter’s role.
Calgary Flames backup Cam Talbot has seen a resurgence of sorts this season. After the Flames took a chance on him last offseason, Talbot has rewarded their faith with an extremely strong 2019-20 season. From Natural Stat Trick, he ranks 17th among all goalies with at least 1000 minutes played this season with a .925 SV% (one point higher than Halak).
Talbot’s workload has been more challenging than Khudobin and Halak too. The Flames aren’t quite as strong defensively than the Stars and Bruins and the shot map shows it.
Talbot’s play has really elevated this season, bailing the Flames out as starter David Rittich battles consistency issues (from ‘Flames goalie David Rittich anxious to get back to winning ways at home,’ Calgary Sun, 03/11/2020). He is also a veteran presence with years of experience as a backup and some as a starter. Talbot could be a cheaper fit as the Canucks juggle the salary cap.
Obviously, the Canucks’ goal is to keep Markstrom. His All-Star-level play has kept his team in the playoff picture even as they struggled. His departure would leave a massive hole in the roster as currently constructed.
That said, Markstrom is due for a massive raise and he may leave. None of the goalies above could likely replace him, but they may be a bandaid while Demko develops into the future starter the Canucks hope he can be.
All things equal, Khudobin is the strongest player of the three options above. He would be an excellent fit on this team and would be a formidable tag-team with Demko. Despite his strong play, it’s hard to see him earning more than Markstrom’s current $3.66 million salary next season.
If Markstrom leaves, the Canucks could potentially be in trouble if he isn’t replaced. Demko could be excellent and he’s shown well lately, but he will need support. While the goalie of the future turns into the goalie of the present, someone will need to fill the void that is Markstrom, even if it seems to be an impossible task.
Vancouver Canucks writer for The Hockey Writers. Former Nashville Predators prospect writer for DobberProspects and Canucks writer for CanucksInSeven.