By: Brayden Fengler / June 11, 2021
Okay, Vancouver you can stop pinching yourself this isn’t a dream. After walking both their head coach and goalie coach right to the end of their contracts, the Canucks have done the unthinkable and managed to sign both. The Canucks re-signed Travis Green back on May 21st, but now Ian Clark, the much-praised goalie coach has finally signed on the dotted lines with the team.
There was a real fear among fans of Clark’s work, that a new contract with Vancouver just wasn’t going to be possible at this stage in the year. This concern was rooted in a few factors. One of which being that despite Jim Benning recently making his intentions known about still wanting to re-sign Ian Clark, anyone who follows this team has learned better than to take Jim’s word on the potential outcome of pending contracts.
The other main route of concern that was pointing away from Ian Clark’s extension was Clark’s reported pride. He’s often touted as the best Goalie Coach working in the biz right now and he knows it, and perhaps when an organization doesn’t jump at the chance to extend someone with that status, it may rub them the wrong way.
It was early May of 2018 when news broke in Columbus that Ian Clark would be leaving the team at the end of his current contract. Early May came and went in Vancouver this year without a new deal for Clark, so the prevailing chatter was that the Canucks may have missed the boat by waiting too long and going beyond a personal timeline of Clark’s.
However as stated up top (go re-read that paragraph, the words have not changed, you’re still hot having a fever dream). The Canucks re-signed Clark reportedly to a 5-year extension that will line his term up with that of Thatcher Demko. So other than the general statement of “It’s good” what does Clark’s extended stay in Vancouver mean for each of the three most prominent goaltenders in this market?
The Guys That’s Been Riding Pine
Let’s start with Michael DiPietro. DiPietro went on record in early May with Patrick Johnston of the Province, and among many enlightening quotes, DiPietro had this to say about Clark’s impact on his development over the past year:
“He has the ability to recognize a goalie and knows goalies don’t play the exact same way. Clarkie has allowed me to still be Michael DiPietro the goaltender who battles and competes, but also in more controlled ways, you know, having better footwork,” – Michael DiPietro to Patrick Johnston
Before being sent to Utica during the tail end of the NHL and AHL seasons this past year, DiPietro did feel like he was still getting valve out of this season by working with Clark. Although it no doubt would’ve been better for his development to see DiPietro either wiggle his way onto the Canucks starting line-up, or be sent to Utica to see regular deployment.
Instead, though DiPietro was of course stuck in taxi squad limbo this year, making his reappearance in Utica at the end of the season, the first professional hockey game that he had played in over a year. The need for a solid taxi squad goalie option and the challenges of the Canucks’ farm team existing over the U.S. border during COVID times, no doubt backed the Canucks into a corner with DiPietro’s 2021 deployment.
It would’ve been better for DiPietro to have played games at any level last year, even if that took him away from Clark’s hands. However, if a goalie is going to be restricted to a “practice only year”, then being paired up with one of the best goalie coaches in the game is probably the best way that situation could play out.
Ian Clark boosts the value of his goaltending students, Sergei Bobrovsky, Jacob Markström, and of course, Demko are the most recent and notable examples. DiPietro, at 22 years old is still young and the full reach of his skills have not yet been fully realized. Whether the Canucks see a future with DiPietro is to be determined, though in the meantime Ian Clark will no doubt be the best thing for DiPietro’s value from a developmental standpoint. Even if that just means boosting his stock for the Canucks to perform a trade with him a few years down the line.
Getting Value from Holtby
From sunrise to sunset, let’s move from the youngest of the three prominent Canucks goalies to the oldest. Braden Holtby currently has one year left on his deal and although he could in theory leave the team in the form of the expansion draft this summer, that isn’t entirely likely. Holtby’s age and his hot and cold performance last season doesn’t necessarily help his case as far as Seattle is concerned.
Holtby’s deal, although no small pennies at a cap hit of $4.3M, is not the worst contract the Canucks currently have on the books. Now you may be thinking to yourself “that’s not a very big statement, the bar is pretty low there.” and you’d be right, but hear me out. Holtby did show signs of his former self this past season, granted only at select times, ending the season with 7 wins in 21 games played.
Should the Canucks end up being “stuck” with Holtby for another full season, having Ian Clark around to work with the veteran netminder is definitely going to be the best way to maximize value out of this aging asset.
Now is probably a good time to state the obvious that Clark is just a human, he is not a goalie whisperer descended from the heavens, as Twitter may have you believe from time to time. This is all to say that just because he’s on the payroll, it doesn’t mean that it’s a sure-fire thing that all netminders will evolve into their final forms under him. But hockey, like all sports, is a game of odds to a certain extent, and the odds of having a more productive Holtby in the last year of his contract will no doubt increase under Clark.
The Main Event
It’s no secret that of all Canucks goaltenders, the one that will benefit the most in both the short term and the long term in having Ian Clark on the coaching staff is Thatcher Demko. Demko has played a total of 4 playoff and 72 regular-season games in the NHL, a total amount of games that still brings him shy of a regular full 82 game NHL season amount.
Now of course it shouldn’t be undersold that one main reason for this is the pandemic shortened seasons both this year and last. Demko would’ve no doubt hit the combined 82 game season marker by now under normal circumstances. However, the fact remains that in the grand scheme of things, he really hasn’t played that much NHL hockey, and with a lack of games played comes an understandable lack of experience.
Demko may already feel like the Canucks’ tried and true starter when Canucks fans think back on Demko’s highlight reel over the last year-plus. But the reality is that we don’t yet know how reliable the 25-year-old will be over the course of a full regular season and beyond. Goalies can come on hot and burn out fast, see the Pittsburgh Penguins over the last five or so years for good examples of that, in both Matt Murray and now Tristan Jarry.
Demko is still relatively early in his career and although nearly all the signs are pointing to him remaining the Canucks’ starter for the foreseeable future. Ian Clark will now be able to remain a key piece of what helps Demko stay on top of his game, and will allow him to continue to develop under a teaching style that he clearly likes and that has been working for him.
We don’t even have to just assume that Demko likes Clark’s teaching style either, we can simply take his word for how much he wanted Clark to come back, as he stated so clearly in the below tweet/video from mid-May.
It’s Just Good Business
Yes, there is the likely unintentional fan-pleasing side of re-signing Ian Clark, who has gained a near cult following in Vancouver, but beyond that, there is proof in the pudding as far as Clark’s on-ice production goes for his goaltending students. Furthermore, It’s clear that Clark’s students simply like working with him. A coach just doesn’t get the kind of praise that Clark has been getting from players in press conferences if they didn’t actually like the guy.
Clark’s appreciation in this market suggests that the work environment he creates is both healthy and effective, and what comes along with a work environment like that, is sustainability. Clark’s five-year contract, organizational likeability, and new proximity to the farm team, means that Clark will be able to very effectively shape the goaltending future of this franchise for years to come. We’ll be able to see Clark not just manage the three goalies on this list, but additional assets as well, such as Arturs Silovs, and future Canucks goalie prospects.
It will be exciting to watch Vancouver’s crease strengthen over these next 5 years. Canucks fans can now only hope that Jim Benning and Travis Green have plans to improve everything else outside of the crease as well.