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For Better or For Worse: Did the Canucks’ goaltending improve this offseason, or take a step back?

The 2020 offseason was one of great change for the Vancouver Canucks. But was it a caterpillar-to-butterfly sort of transformation, or a metamorphosis of the Kafkaesque variety?

In our For Better or For Worse series, we’re hoTlding the 2021 Canucks up against the standard set by the 2019/20 roster to answer the offseason’s most burning question: did the Canucks get better, or did they get worse?

First up, goaltending.

Braden Holtby vs Jacob Markstrom

Braden Holtby Record GAA Save %
2019/20 25-14-6 3.11 .897
Career 282-122-46 2.54 .916
Jacob Markstrom Record GAA Save %
2019/20 23-16-4 2.75 .918
Career 110-118-32 2.80 .911

If your definition of “right now” includes the last calendar year, then there’s really no argument against Jacob Markstrom being a better goaltender than Braden Holtby right now. Though they’re nearly the same age — Holtby is four-and-a-half months older — the two appear to be at drastically different points in their career.

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Markstrom just completed his best season yet. Holtby just finished his worst season ever, and the first in which he’s posted a GAA above 3.00 and a save percentage under .900.

Markstrom was Vancouver’s unanimous MVP in 2019/20 and only left because other, more foolish franchises were willing to offer him exorbitant salary and term. All indications are that the Washington Capitals didn’t even make Holtby an offer to stay.

It’s safe to say, then, that Holtby is not currently on Markstrom’s level. But that’s not to say he can’t get back there during his time with the Canucks, because he’s certainly been there before.

Holtby is coming off two straight years of regression, and it’s been three seasons since his last Vezina vote, but he’s only two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup, three from his second consecutive Vezina nomination, and four from actually winning the darn thing.

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During that run from 2014 to 2018, and especially in those 2018 playoffs, Holtby boasted a statline far over and above anything Markstrom has ever produced. At 31 and having enjoyed a relatively injury-free career thus far, who’s to say Holtby can’t reach those heights again in Vancouver — especially with goaltending coach Ian Clark working his magic? It worked for Markstrom, after all, and Holtby specifically cited Clark as one of his reasons for choosing the Canucks in free agency. Heck, even the Vegas oddsmakers reckon Holtby has a better chance of taking home the Vezina in 2021 than Markstrom, for whatever that’s worth.

So, there’s potential for Holtby to perform as well in the Vancouver crease as Markstrom did, but it’s also far from a guarantee. Thus, on the Holtby-for-Markstrom swap alone, it’s tough to say that the Canucks came out ahead.

Cap space is, of course, a consideration, and Holtby does come more than $1.5 million cheaper, something that carries significant value in and of itself.

But another consideration that matters far more in the long-run is whether not an improved Thatcher Demko is enough to close any gap between Holtby and Markstrom.

Is an improved Thatcher Demko enough to close the gap?

Thatcher Demko Record GAA Save %
2019/20 13-10-2 3.06 .905
Career 18-13-3 3.02 .906

Demko was the backup last year, and he theoretically starts the 2021 season in a “1B” sort of role. Demko versus Demko sounds like an even exchange, but Demko can be expected to play at least a dozen more games in 2021, so what we’re really comparing here is Demko’s extra crease-time against what Markstrom did with it in 2019/20. Given Demko’s regular-season numbers thus far, that reads as an immediate downgrade.

Then again, we’re not talking about the exact same Demko, either. The Demko that skates into 2021 will be a year older, an NHL sophomore, and coming off some of the greatest playoff goaltending performances in recent history.

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It appears probable that, at some point in this upcoming season, Demko will steal the starting reigns from Holtby — if he doesn’t come out of training camp with them already firmly in his grasp. But to do that, he’ll need to take another step forward in his development. Whether that step brings him anywhere near Markstrom-quality netminding is impossible to predict, but it no longer seems out of the question.

Let’s talk about depth!

Though Holtby is the only new goaltender to join the organization this offseason, there’s still plenty of reshuffling to be done further down the depth chart on account of numerous departures.

Midseason acquisition and confectioner extraordinaire Louis Domingue has left for cruddier pastures, leaving Michael DiPietro as the uncontested third-stringer and Utica starter for 2021.

At first blush, that looks like a downgrade, especially when it comes to NHL spot duty. The 28-year-old Domingue already has 139 big league games under his belt, and his statline doesn’t look bad at all for someone who’s never held down a permanent gig.

Consider, however, that, with 36 games as a rookie pro, DiPietro has already started as often as Domingue has in any of his six AHL campaigns. With a 2.79 GAA and .908 save percentage, DiPietro’s numbers are better than Domingue ever achieved across a full season, and not too far off of Domingue’s best short stints. And DiPietro just turned 21 this past summer.

In other words, DiPietro might be a slight downgrade on Domingue at the present moment, especially when it comes to filling in for an injured Holtby or Demko, but it shouldn’t be long before he develops into an upgrade, and possibly a significant one.

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This past season, DiPietro was supported in Utica by two veteran netminders in Richard Bachman and Zane McIntyre, but both have moved on to Europe. As it currently stands, DiPietro will be backed up in 2021 by Jake Kielly, a fellow pro sophomore, albeit an older one at 24. Kielly struggled in his debut season for the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL, but he looked good in two appearances with the Comets, and the organization obviously thought highly enough of him to offer up another contract. He’ll do the trick for now, if only because his presence on the roster likely means a heavier workload — and thus more developmental minutes — for DiPietro.

If either Holtby or Demko suffers a long-term injury, however, the team will probably have to trade for a temporary replacement, as DiPietro needs to start rather than sit on the bench and Kielly isn’t close to ready for NHL time. As of this writing, Arturs Silovs is the only other goalie the Canucks have under contract, and he’s still a teenager. It’s the exact situation that led to the acquisition of Domingue in 2019/20, and there are always goaltenders out there looking for NHL time.

Final Verdict:

The newly-established tandem of Holtby and Demko could very well outperform the Markstrom/Demko duo of 2019/20, but that would require a Holtby renaissance, some serious Demko progression, or, ideally, both.

Until either of those things come to pass, however, we’ll have to reluctantly rule that the Canucks’ goaltending got worse in the 2020 offseason — for the time being, at least.