Contrary to some reports, the heavy lifting of the Canucks’ rebuild still isn’t done, but they do have some key parts of the foundation laid down.
Most great teams have a core group that consists of an elite first-line centre, an elite scoring winger, a two-way centre, a number one defenceman, and a reliable starting goaltender. You can look to the best Canucks team of all time for an example: the 2010-11 Canucks boasted an elite first-line centre and winger tandem in the Sedins, a dominant two-way centre in Ryan Kesler, a top-pairing of Alex Edler and Christian Ehrhoff that approximated a single number one defenceman, and the incredible Roberto Luongo in net.
The Canucks currently have some pieces that could fit those roles in the future. Elias Pettersson looks like an elite centre, Brock Boeser fits the bill as a sniper, Bo Horvat is a little shakier defensively than you might like as a two-way centre, but scores plenty, and the Canucks are optimistic that they found a number one defenceman in Quinn Hughes.
The biggest question mark is in goal.
It should be eminently clear by now that Jacob Markstrom isn’t the long-term answer in the Canucks’ net. Neither is Anders Nilsson. That’s not a slight on their performances, necessarily, but more of a recognition of reality. Both will be 29 by the end of the season and haven’t been consistent enough to give the Canucks much confidence that either will be solid enough for a contending team in their thirties.
That leaves the Canucks with the hopeful goaltender of the future, Thatcher Demko, who has returned to action in the AHL after missing time with a concussion to start the season. Demko is one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey, but he’s not a sure thing. He’s about to turn 23 and has just one NHL game to his credit.
Demko was excellent in the AHL last season and seems to be on-track to be an NHL starter in the future, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Even goaltenders that have performed similarly to Demko at the same age have failed to either make the NHL or become a starter.
That’s problematic because the Canucks’ goaltending eggs are almost entirely in Demko’s basket. Despite having essentially no goaltending prospects to speak of when he took the job as Canucks GM, Jim Benning drafted just one goaltender in his first three drafts. That was Demko in the second round in 2014. If Demko didn’t (or doesn’t) pan out, there was no backup plan.
In 2017, Benning added Michael DiPietro, who has been outstanding for a low-scoring Windsor Spitfires team in the OHL, then drafted Matthew Thiessen in 2018. Thiessen is currently struggling to adapt to the USHL after playing Junior A last season.
The Canucks need at least one of Demko, DiPietro, or Thiessen to be not just a starting goaltender, but an above-league-average starting goaltender. If all goes well, Demko and DiPietro will be the starter and backup of the future, but when it comes to goaltenders, you can’t always rely on all going well.
When you look at how other rebuilding teams found their number one goaltender, you can see a few different paths.
There’s the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 2000’s, who executed a quick rebuild with the help of some favourable luck in the draft lottery that landed them not only Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but also Marc-Andre Fleury with the first overall pick in 2003.
Drafting a goaltender high in the first round comes with some significant risks. There’s Fleury at first overall, but there was also Rick DiPietro. Roberto Luongo went fourth overall and Carey Price went fifth, but Al Montoya and Brian Finley were both sixth overall picks. Blue-chip prospect goaltenders come in varying shades of blue.
Landing Fleury was a stroke of good fortune, but the Penguins weren’t just hoping for the best in net as they rebuilt. Heading into the new millenium, they had prospect goaltenders in the system like Jean-Sebastien Aubin and Sebastien Caron, and drafted eight goaltenders between 2000 and 2003.
Even after picking Fleury, they selected two more goaltenders in the next three drafts. While Fleury worked out, backstopping the Penguins to 2.5 Stanley Cups, the Penguins kept their options open.
You could also follow in the footsteps of the Toronto Maple Leafs over the last four years. They didn’t rely on the draft to find their starting goaltender. After trying Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer for a couple seasons, the Leafs traded for Frederik Andersen from the Anaheim Ducks, who was already well-established as an above-average NHL starter.
It’s rare that a reliable starter like Andersen is available on the market, but there is one much-rumoured possibility: Sergei Bobrovsky.
The 30-year-old Vezina winner is expected to test free agency after this season. It’s an unusual situation, because Bobrovsky is arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. That caliber of goaltender is rarely, if ever, available in free agency, and there will be teams willing to open up their pocketbooks to get him. That likely means, at bare minimum, a $10-million-per-season contract, and a bidding war would likely see that grow significantly.
While the Canucks have the cap space to make a big number work, as well as Bobrovsky’s former goaltending coach in Columbus in Ian Clarke, there’s no guarantee he’ll want to sign with the Canucks. There’s also no guarantee that it’s actually a good idea, considering he’ll be 31 at the start of his new contract and, while some goaltenders continue to play at an elite level throughout their thirties, on average they decline significantly.
There’s another rebuilding team that we can look at as an example for the Canucks, however, and it’s the same one Trevor Linden was reportedly holding up as a model before his “amicable” departure: the Winnipeg Jets.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff took an exceedingly patient approach, focussing primarily on drafting and development over making trades. When it came to goaltending, however, Cheveldayoff tried a little bit of everything.
The Jets ended up with a solid number one goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck, who is still just 25 years old. His career save percentage is .916, with a spike of .924 last season that earned him a new, six-year contract worth a little over $6.16 million per year.
The highway to Hellebuyck, however, was full of potholes and detours.
The Jets started with Ondrej Pavelec, a holdover from the Atlanta Thrashers, as the starting goaltender, with Chris Mason backing him up. Still young when the team moved to Winnipeg, Pavelec was hoped to be their long-term solution in net. His inconsistent play, however, made it clear they needed someone else.
In 2012, Cheveldayoff traded a seventh round pick for Jonas Gustavsson’s rights, trying to get him signed ahead of free agency to battle with Pavelec for the starting job. His numbers weren’t all that different from Pavelec’s and perhaps Cheveldayoff was hoping a tandem would get the most out of both goaltenders. Instead, he spurned the Jets and signed with the Red Wings in free agency.
In 2013, he added Michael Hutchinson in free agency, hoping the 23-year-old could be the team’s goaltender of the future. Unfortunately, he could never translate his excellent numbers in the AHL into NHL success and he asked for a trade when the crease got too crowded. While he never did get traded, he eventually signed with the Florida Panthers in free agency.
Hellebuyck came via the draft, but he wasn’t the only goaltender Cheveldayoff picked. He picked four goaltenders in his first three drafts with the Jets, the highest pick being Eric Comrie in the second round. It just happened that Hellebuyck is the one that rose to the top.
From this, I think it’s fair to say that Cheveldayoff took a bulk approach to finding a goaltender. He gave a holdover from the previous regime a chance, and tried trades, free agency, and the draft to find his number one.
There are certain parallels you can draw to the Canucks. You could consider Markstrom and Nilsson equivalent to Pavelec and Mason. The question is whether Demko is more like Hutchinson — an AHL star who has yet to fully translate his game to the NHL — or Hellebuyck, a legitimate number one goaltender.
Demko and Hellebuyck look similar at their age 20 seasons in the NCAA, while Demko’s first two seasons in the AHL are similar to Hutchinson’s. That’s not to say that his path will directly parallel either goaltender, but to point out that even a highly-regarded goaltender might not reach his ceiling.
Even after signing Hellebuyck to an extension, Hellebuyck hasn’t stopped searching for more goaltenders. The Jets signed 25-year-old Laurent Brossoit this past off-season to backup Hellebuyck. Including Comrie and more recent draft picks Mikhail Berdin, Arvid Holm, and Jared Moe, the Jets have six goaltenders in the system, all of them 25 or younger.
Perhaps Cheveldayoff learned the importance of goaltending depth from the struggle to find Hellebuyck in the first place.
It’s worth asking whether the Canucks need to widen their search for goaltenders to add to the system as they push to become playoff and Stanley Cup contenders.