There are most likely three teams in the NHL who are going to be very, very happy when this playoff tournament ends. The first is the team that gets its name engraved on the Stanley Cup. The second is the Montreal Canadiens and the third is the Vancouver Canucks. You could certainly make the argument that, aside from the Cup winner, no team gained more by the NHL saving the 2019-20 season than the Canucks.
With a roster that went into this bizarre post-season with core players who were playoff neophytes, the Canucks gained an enormous amount of valuable experience in big games. They learned about themselves and they added a layer of battle hardness that will serve them well in future years. “What our team has gone through, the mental part, physical part, it will help our group,” Canucks coach Travis Green said after his team’s gut-wrenching 3-0 loss in Game 7 to the Vegas Golden Knights. “It will help our group next year. It will help us in five years.”
Indeed it will. Speaking of five years, that’s likely the term goalie Jacob Markstrom will want to re-sign with the Canucks as an unrestricted free agent. The money will likely be somewhere in the $5.5 million range per season, which under normal circumstances would be a pretty fair deal all around for a 30-year-old who put together a Vezina Trophy-caliber season and appears to actually be getting better.
But then Thatcher Demko came in and screwed the plan up. Boy, did he ever. It can often be dangerous to put too much stock into a small body of work, but Demko was Ken-Dryden-circa-1971-like in the three games he played for the Canucks after Markstrom went down. He stopped 126 of 128 shots and was the only reason the Canucks were not leaving the bubble after Game 5. The Canucks were badly outplayed and outshot by the Golden Knights and Demko was a huge reason why their players got the big-game experience that will help them so much down the road.
Now the Canucks and GM Jim Benning are faced with a vexing decision, one that will have an impact on the organization for years to come. Given what Demko showed them against the Knights, Benning would be doing the organization a disservice if he at least didn’t seriously consider allowing Markstrom to walk in free agency. And the organization could reap the benefits in both the short- and long-term.
In the short-term, there’s no way the Canucks will be able to re-sign pending unrestricted free agents Markstrom, Tyler Toffoli and Chris Tanev, but they might be able to sign two of them. If you’ve seen enough from Demko to determine that he’s capable of being a No. 1 goalie, why not supplement your roster with what you need rather than more of what you already have?
Much of this will depend on how the Canucks view their goaltending dynamic moving forward. If you view Demko as NHL-ready, but you’d like to have a veteran with him to take 30 or more games, you can get them for a lot more cheaply and with far less term than it would take to sign Markstrom. If indeed Markstrom gets somewhere in the $5.5 million range, that’s probably about $3 million more than you need to spend on a quality 1A goaltender. And that’s where the long-term prospects come in. After next season, the Canucks have three high-impact restricted free agents to sign – Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and now, the 24-year-old Demko. They’re all proving to be worth very big money. In a hard-cap system that has been thrown into chaos, nobody knows what is going to happen with league revenues in the next couple of years. They almost certainly won’t go up. In fact, they may very well go down. The Canucks and every other team will need every cap dollar they can get to navigate their way through this new reality.
Having an extra $3 million or so that you’re not spending on Markstrom could turn out to be very valuable. So perhaps you go with Demko, then pick up a quality veteran on a shorter term to give you that flexibility. And signing said veteran would also protect you in the expansion draft. If the Canucks go into next summer with both Markstrom and Demko as their goalies, they face the possibility of having to (a) leave one of them exposed and risk losing him for nothing; (b) make a deal with Seattle to stay away from Demko (and we saw how some of those deals worked out for Vegas); or, (c) trade Demko somewhere else to avoid the risk of losing him for nothing.
With all that being said, Jacob Markstrom was a huge reason why the Canucks were in the playoffs in the first place. He got them to the Vegas series and Demko got them to Game 7, one goal away from moving on to the Western Conference final. None of this has anything to do with what Markstrom did. This is a difficult dilemma, but signing Markstrom to a long-term deal when Demko is right there are the kinds of decisions that have the potential to look really regrettable in the long-term. Teams in the NHL too often reward players for past performance rather than future performance. Benning and the Canucks have the option to swallow hard, make the difficult choice and avoid being one of those teams.
It’s an option they at least have to seriously consider.