When Spencer Martin was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the offseason for nothing but future considerations, it wasn’t being discussed at length on social media and the various radio stations and podcasts around Vancouver. It was barely a blip on the radar of Canucks Nation. He wasn’t brought in to be the backup to Thatcher Demko or even the starter for the new Vancouver Canucks American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate in Abbotsford. He was merely depth, nothing more.
Fast forward to March 2022, and Martin has become a huge talking point around the water cooler. With veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak struggling (15 goals against in his last five games) and seemingly on his way out either at the trade deadline or in the offseason, he is being discussed as a possible cheap backup for Demko. Talk about a huge turnaround from being just a depth piece at the beginning of the season. That begs the question, what changed to make him a viable option to back up the 26-year-old budding superstar? Before we answer that, let’s take a look at his journey to the NHL and his return to prominence.
Martin’s Road to the NHL
Martin started his junior hockey journey with the Ontario Hockey League’s (OHL) Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors after he was selected 18th overall in the OHL Priority Selection Draft in 2011. Debuting that same season, he ended up playing 15 games behind J.P. Anderson and Brandon Maxwell, finishing with a 3.98 goals-against average (GAA) and .885 save percentage (SV%). Continuing with Mississauga when they changed their name to the Steelheads, he became their starter in his draft year and despite posting a mediocre 3.02 GAA and .906 SV% in 46 games, was selected 63rd overall by the Colorado Avalanche.
Martin played out his junior eligibility with the Steelheads and ended his career with a 3.31 GAA and .904 SV% along with four shutouts in 156 games. That included a career-best 2.98 GAA and .921 SV% during his final season in 2014-15.
Turning pro with the San Antonio Rampage in 2015-16, Martin bounced between the AHL and the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets before becoming the Rampage’s de facto starter in 2016-17 when he played 50 games and posted a 2.90 GAA and .904 SV% along with two shutouts. That was also the season he made his NHL debut with the Avalanche.
Martin’s First Stint with the Avalanche
It took a few years, but Martin finally fulfilled his dream of starting a game in the NHL when he got a tap on the shoulder from head coach Jared Bednar for a game against the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 27, 2017. Unfortunately, he didn’t get his first NHL victory along with it but played a solid game between the pipes, making 27 saves in his team’s 3-2 loss in overtime. Regardless of the result, he was excited to make his debut.
It’s the biggest thrill of my life so far…I’ll never forget it. The first few minutes were tough, but after that I settled in.
With injuries to regular netminders Semyon Varlamov and Calvin Pickard, the 21-year-old ended up playing three games for the Avalanche posting a 0-2-1 record along with a 4.35 GAA and .865 SV%. Not sparkling numbers by any means, but considering he was playing behind a team that gave up a league-worst 278 goals against and scored a league-low 166 goals, we should probably cut him some slack. The Avs also lost 56 games en route to a 30th place finish.
Martin’s Long Road Back to the NHL
After Martin started that last game for the Avalanche against the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 1, 2017, I don’t think he thought he would have to wait four seasons to get another chance. But that’s exactly what happened. 112 AHL games and four ECHL games later, he finally got the call to start another game in the NHL, this time with the Canucks.
With Demko and Halak unavailable due to COVID-19 protocol and Mike DiPietro struggling to find his footing in the AHL, it was Martin who got the call against the powerhouse Florida Panthers on Jan. 21, 2022, and he didn’t disappoint. Holding one of the NHL’s top offensive teams to just one goal through regulation and overtime, he made 33 saves in an eventual 2-1 shootout loss. Many of them were calm, cool and collected along with some highlight-reel ones thrown in for good measure. The only shot that beat him outside the shootout was a Sam Reinhart power-play goal that he had no chance of stopping. Needless to say, he was ecstatic to play in the NHL again after almost five years.
“I wasn’t as amped up as I thought I’d be given how much it meant to me to get a game,” said Martin. “I just felt incredibly blessed to know how hard it is to get to this level. It’s hard to put into one answer but it felt incredible to get an opportunity.”
Head coach Bruce Boudreau, a veteran of 625 AHL games as a player and nine seasons as a coach, certainly knows the sometimes unrewarded work that goes on in that league. So, it wasn’t really a surprise to hear him gush about Martin and the opportunity he earned from his hard work in Abbotsford.
“I love when American [Hockey] League players that have played there for a while get opportunities and show what they can do, because there’s a lot of times a lot of good players get overlooked because of their age or for whatever reason…”
Unfortunately for Martin, he couldn’t follow that performance with another start right away, as he was placed in COVID protocol not long after the game. Mike DiPietro got his first start in a while against the St. Louis Blues and ended up dropping a 3-1 decision.
Martin was luckily cleared to play against the Edmonton Oilers just a few days later and didn’t disappoint in his second start with the Canucks. Clearly channelling the brilliance of Roberto Luongo, he stopped a career-high 47 shots, but once again couldn’t come away with the win. Connor McDavid spoiled that dream in overtime when he beat the 26-year-old with a tap-in from a pass by Darnell Nurse.
Martin Finally Gets His First NHL Win
It was a long and winding road, but Martin finally got his first NHL victory when he made 33 saves against the Winnipeg Jets in a 5-1 win on Jan. 27, 2022, a full five years to the day since he made his first start with the Avalanche. He was brilliant again after two strong games against the Oilers and Panthers and finally got rewarded with his first W as an NHL goaltender.
“It’s incredibly special,” Martin told reporters via Zoom. “Having it go well and get a win, I don’t know if it has sunk in yet. But hopefully just keep building off of it. It’s a really special day for me.”
Surprisingly, Martin has yet to see the NHL again this season after posting a ridiculous 1.59 GAA and .958 SV% in three starts. Once Demko and Halak were healthy, he was quickly dispatched to the AHL to continue his season in Abbotsford.
Martin Making a Case To Become Demko’s Backup in 2022-23
Since being sent down the freeway to Abbotsford, Martin has been nothing short of amazing for the baby Canucks. Just look at these numbers if you don’t believe me. In his last five games alone, he has a 1.80 GAA and .940 SV% along with a shutout. Included in those games was another 40-plus save performance, this time against the Bakersfield Condors (ironically the Oilers’ AHL affiliate) when he made 43 saves in a 2-1 victory. His record now stands at a sparkling 12-2-2 with a 2.30 GAA and .920 SV% to go along with three shutouts.
For the Canucks to succeed in the future, they need as many cheap contracts as they can get. Spending big money on a backup goaltender isn’t something they can afford at this point. Enter Martin. He has done everything in his power to show management and the coaching staff that he is capable of backing up Demko and supplying 20-30 quality starts a season. Granted, three games is hardly a large sample size, but his work in the AHL lately should at least give him the benefit of the doubt going into next season.
In fact, the Canucks should feel comfortable at this point to trade Halak before the trade deadline on March 21. Given that he probably won’t be around in 2022-23, it would be best to get something for him instead of letting him walk in free agency. With only three back-to-backs left on the schedule after the 21st, I’m sure Martin can more than adequately fill in and give the team a chance to win.
All in all, the Canucks have found money in Martin. It’s best they take advantage of it, instead of signing yet another expensive veteran mentor that Demko clearly does not need anymore. It’s time for the era of cheap backup goaltenders to reign supreme again, except this time, get into way more than nine games (Dany Sabourin in 2006-07). With what Martin has done this season, he deserves to be rewarded with the opportunity to continue his NHL career in a more permanent role.
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Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.