Trent Leith / April 30, 2021
Just like every other aspect of the Vancouver Canucks season, there have been some serious highs and treacherous lows with the goaltending situation. Thatcher Demko has shown that his performance in the bubble was not a blip, but instead the bar. Braden Holtby started his Canucks tenure with some of the weakest hockey of his career and Michael DiPietro hasn’t played a game in over 400 days, after a strong start to his professional career with the Utica Comets.
A lot has changed in the first two weeks since the return from the COVID break, so let’s take a moment to look at each of the four Canucks goaltenders, and assess how this season has treated them so far.
Demko has arguably been the best player for the Canucks through the 2020/21 season. Demko has played so well that he was widely considered to be as important of a signing as Elias Patterson or Quinn Hughes. Demko was the first of the three Canucks RFA’s to get signed to a contract this year, at 5 years, $5M per. Demko has posted a season average of .917 sv% and a GAA of 2.74 Demko was having a career year prior to the required time off due to the teams COVID-19 outbreak.
Demko had a slow start to his season but, he quickly became the clear-cut starting goaltender after edging out Braden Holtby. In his two starts since returning Demko has lost both games against the Ottawa Senators. Many have pointed out that he looked a little slower or a little less sharp than normal, citing the possible lingering symptoms of COVID-19 in his first game back.
After his first start after returning, Demko suffered a lower-body injury during the morning skate. Demko would miss the third of four Ottawa Senator games with his injury, but would later return to play Wednesday night’s game. In Wednesday’s game, he seemed to have found his legs and returned to form, bailing the defensively porous team out many times on route to a 6-3 loss.
In Demko’s first game back, he played some of his sloppiest and slowest games since taking the reins as the starting goaltender. That leads many to wonder if Demko is truly 100% ready to play games down the stretch, coupled with the concerns surrounding his injury that he received after just one game back.
While mathematically speaking, the Canucks are still in the race for the playoffs, realistically they don’t have much of a chance after dropping three of four to the Senators. We can’t say for sure if Demko is dealing with any lingering symptoms of COVID-19, or if he’s just going through a bit of a slump. But in the context of everything the team went through at the beginning of April, it’s fair to be worried about the goaltenders long term health.
While we hope Bubly Demko is able to return to, and maintain form, it is also worth noting that the remainder of the season could be his last chance to practice with noted goaltending coach Ian Clark. Ian Clark is without a contract starting July 1st, along with Travis Green. Ian Clark is among the league-leading goaltending coaches in the NHL, and both past and present goaltenders have been quick to praise Ian Clark’s work in making his goaltenders the best versions of themselves. While Clark’s future is currently up in the air with the Vancouver Canucks, it’s for this reason that Demko should be getting as much time as possible with Ian in case the coach and the team part ways this summer.
In classic Canuck Luck fashion, the day after Michael DiPietro gets sent down to Utica, after being on the taxi squad all season except for one game as a backup, Thatcher Demko gets listed as day-to-day. As a result of DiPietro’s Utica assignment, he missed his chance to take the ice for the Canucks in their time of need. While DiPietro took every opportunity to learn as much as possible from Ian Clark in his time practicing with the Canucks, it is not the same as getting game action whether that is in the AHL or in the NHL.
After more than 400 days without game action, the 21-year-old DiPietro has been sent to the Utica Comets to finally get some games under his belt. The Utica comments currently are also helping the St Louis Blues by hosting their prospects this year, and as such DiPietro will have to share the net with Will Cranley. It is expected DiPietro will only get five or six starts in Utica’s remaining regular-season games.
Even still, going to Utica is probably the best option for DiPietro as he has worked a lot with Ian Clark over the course of this season. Now DiPietro has a chance to implement what he has learned in-game action, even if it is at a lower level of play. While it would have been nice to try and get DiPietro some NHL action, you can’t blame the coaching staff for not implementing a goalie so new and unproven, while they themselves go without contracts for the next season.
In a lot of ways, Braden Holtby has had the opposite season trajectory as Thatcher Demko. Braden Holtby had a very weak start to the beginning of this season and ultimately ended up losing starts to Demko. Since the team returned from their lengthy break, Braden Holtby has been the most reliable player for the Vancouver Canucks. Holtby has put up an impressive .933 sv% in his first four starts. On Thursday night he let in four goals on 24 shots bringing that number down to .912 sv%.
While the last handful of games have been very strong, his season save percentage is still .904. Should the Canucks make the playoffs against all odds, much of the credit would have to go to Holtby. In most of the wins since returning, the Canucks have been outplayed, but Holtby has stayed incredibly reliable to hold the Canucks afloat.
Holtby is a veteran of the NHL at 31 years old and has been trending downward statistically in the last few seasons. But these last few games serve as hope that Holtby still has it in him to be a top-tier goaltender. Holtby’s recent uptick in performance is important to note with the looming Seattle expansion draft in the summer. It would be beneficial for the Canucks to be able to get out from Holtby’s $4.3m cap hit. With Holtby’s play earlier in this season, it was a far cry to expect the Seattle Kraken to have any serious interest in the former Vezina winner. However, with his recent resurgence, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Seattle becomes interested in the Stanley Cup pedigree and off-ice leadership within the community Holtby provides. Holtby could be what Marc-Andre Fleury is to the Vegas Golden Knights for the Seattle Kraken.
While five games is a very small sample size, it is encouraging to see that there’s still gas in the tank for Braden Holtby. Even if Seattle doesn’t claim Braden Holtby in the expansion draft moving forward, he holds more value to the Vancouver Canucks as a very reliable backup that can play starting deployment should he be called upon, rather than a middling asset in the back half of his career. The Holtby we’ve seen in the previous handful of games is an asset that many teams across the league would find valuable, and having extra assets that can be moved will only strengthen the club in the long term.
Arturs Silovs is the name most fans probably haven’t heard much about. Silovs is a 21-year-old goaltender with an apparently confusing name. In his NHL debut backing up Braden Holtby on April 26th, his name was spelled wrong on the back of his jersey to start warm-ups though it was later pointed out that on his actual game jersey, the name was spelled correctly.
Silovs has played eight games this season in Latvia and one for the Manitoba Moose before being called to the taxi squad in exchange for Michael DiPietro. If all things go as planned Silovs will not start a game for the Canucks this season. As mentioned, it was beneficial for DiPietro to be sent to Utica and it is equally beneficial for Silovs to be working with Ian Clark to develop the technical side of his game.
While DiPietro needs to start, Silovs needs to refine his skills. Should this be the last that Canucks have Ian Clark as a part of the coaching staff, it would be beneficial to have the young goalie working with him before going back into the AHL.
Silovs is likely still many years away from being NHL ready, but as far as asset management goes, sending DiPietro to the AHL and calling up Silovs was in everybody’s best interest for the future.
Even if the Canucks fall flat the rest of the way and miss the postseason, one highlight is the situations the goaltenders find themselves in. Whether that is getting reps on the ice, getting some time with the elite coaching staff, changing the narrative of their season, or just plain old holding steady, the goaltenders all seem to be in the exact place they should be right now. The Canucks are poised to have strong goaltending for years to come and that is something the team needs to be successful.