Goaltending Battle Brewing for Canucks

There’s no shortage of goaltending controversy stories for the Vancouver Canucks since the calendar turned to the new decade. Whether the duo has been Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, Luongo and Eddie Lack, Lack and Ryan Miller, or Miller and Jacob Markstrom, the performance of the so-called backup has prompted some fans of the Canucks to cry that the team should hand the bulk of the goaltending load to that guy.

The Canucks might be headed down that road again for 2017-18, but there’s one key difference between the duo of Markstrom and free agent signing Anders Nilsson and all the others. Neither Markstrom or Nilsson is established as a number one goaltender in the NHL.

It’s a dynamic that the Canucks haven’t had since 2000-01 when Bob Essensa shared the crease with Dan Cloutier (acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning) and Felix Potvin (traded to the Los Angeles Kings).

Markstrom Should be No. 1

Since being picked up by the Canucks in the 2014 trade that sent Luongo back to the Florida Panthers, Markstrom has compiled a 25-28-7 record along with a 2.71 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage in 66 games. The Swedish netminder also played 32 games with the AHL’s Utica Comets in 2014-15 and compiled a solid 22-7-2 record.

(Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports)

Heading into this offseason with veteran Ryan Miller a pending unrestricted free agent, it appeared Markstrom would finally get the opportunity to be the Canucks number one goaltender in 2017-18. The 6’6″, 200 lb. netminder is signed to a three year, contract extension that kicks in this upcoming season. It pays the 2010 Swedish Hockey League (SHL) Goaltender of the Year a very cap friendly salary of $3.67 million per season through the 2019-20 season.

At 27 years old, Markstrom only has 107 NHL games under his belt after playing in North America for the last seven seasons. In terms of development, it’s now or never for him to take control of the crease for the Canucks. However, Canucks general manager Jim Benning potentially threw a wrench in the works when free agency opened this year by signing Nilsson.

Nilsson Should be No. 1

The similarities between Nilsson and Markstrom are almost scary. Nilsson is also 6’6″, 27 years old and both could be considered a medium injury risk. Despite Nilsson’s age, he’s only played five full seasons in North America. Like Markstrom, the Luleå HF product also led the SHL in goals-against-average once during his career, finishing with a 1.92 GAA in 2011-12. The two are familiar with each other on a personal level too, as they were the bronze medal winning goaltenders for Sweden at the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship.

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Nilsson had a good season for the Buffalo Sabres in 2016-17, putting up a .923 save percentage in 26 games. He finished with a 10-10-4 record along with a 2.67 GAA, the lowest in his NHL career. Nilsson signed a two-year deal with the Canucks, getting a raise from the $1 million he made in each of the last two seasons with the Sabres and Edmonton Oilers/St. Louis Blues respectively. The value of the contract with the Canucks is for $2.5 million through 2018-19, so there isn’t a major discrepancy between Markstrom’s and Nilsson’s salaries either.

Based on his performance last season, Nilsson is deserving of the raise, but he still hasn’t established himself as a tried and true starter in the NHL. He only has 78 career NHL games to his name, with a 29-32-8 record, a 2.94 GAA, a .908 save percentage and two shutouts. Sounds a lot like Markstrom’s career trajectory.

Neither Should be No. 1

Maybe the most desirable scenario for new Canucks head coach Travis Green is that neither Markstrom nor Nilsson grab the reigns and stand out as the team’s number one goaltender. The fact that neither has been “the guy” for an NHL team might play in the Canucks favor. Green could go with the hot hand on any given night or split the starts right down the middle, knowing that either netminder gives the Canucks an equal chance at winning. However, if one of the two gets on a big time hot streak this season, watch for questions to be raised on how Green is using them in rotation.

With both Markstrom under contract through 2019-20 and Nilsson only signed through 2018-19, it appears one of the two is likely keeping a spot on the Canucks roster warm for top prospect Thatcher Demko. The 21 year old will benefit from AHL seasoning and not being rushed into the NHL. He should be ready for prime time in 2018-19 in at least a backup role, which means if he plays well, the perpetual controversy with the Canucks goaltending will continue.