The Vancouver Canucks and good goaltending have gone hand-in-hand for essentially the last 15 seasons. There have been blips every now and then but it’s become something that can almost be expected and relied on for both the team and fans as Vancouver just casually cycles through elite goalies. It will have to remain good, if not elite, in the 2021-22 season as the Canucks try to fight their way back into a playoff spot.
Thatcher Demko is the main piece of this puzzle, and he picked up right where he left off in the bubble last season, finishing with a 2.85 GAA and a .915 save percentage, along with finishing positively in most advanced goalie numbers at even strength:
For reference, here is Braden Holtby’s table for last year:
The impact of a goalie like Demko was evident in Vancouver’s record last season. The Canucks won 16 out of the 35 games Demko got the final result in, whereas Holtby only won 7 of his 21 decisions. That also shows where the team’s defence was last season, as the only defender that had an undeniably positive impact defensively was Alex Edler, who is no longer on the team.
The Canucks overhauled the defence this offseason, and personally, I’m looking forward to the offensive potential of a team with Quinn Hughes, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Tyler Myers, and possibly even Jack Rathbone on the blueline.
That being said, the defensive outlook is what worries me. Travis Hamonic and Tucker Poolman do have the ability to be a bit more solid defensively, but the other players that will factor into the defence have yet to show any evidence that they can thrive in their own end.
New assistant coach Brad Shaw’s impact on the defence is still yet to be seen, but personally, I can’t see him being the defensive guru that some people hope he can be. His former team, the Blue Jackets, finished just slightly better than the Canucks did last year at preventing chances, and have not finished in the top ten of the league since 2017-18. That doesn’t mean that he can’t improve the defence, but it’s hard to believe that he is going to be to the defence what Ian Clark is for the goaltending. On top of that, the key pieces of the defence core have yet to be asked to provide a lot of defence in their career — whether that be Hughes, Ekman-Larsson, or Myers. Maybe just asking Myers to not lay down to defend would be a good start though.
Obviously, the Canucks would prefer to play well defensively (I hope, but also the chaos hockey we may see this year does sound super fun), but because they don’t seem to have the pieces to make good defence happen, it looks like it will fall back on Demko and Jaroslav Halak picking up the slack this season.
Offensively, it looks like the team will be much improved as they seem to have depth throughout the lineup, especially in the top six. They also added players like Jason Dickinson who do play well defensively, but of course will not have the same impact as many of the defencemen on the team.
The issue is the Canucks won’t just need good goaltending, they’ll need elite goaltending. The retention of Ian Clark will be huge as hopefully, it means his connection with Demko can continue to grow, while also potentially just getting Halak back to where he was a couple of years ago, which would be better than what Holtby brought to the ice last season.
Halak had a bit of an off year last season:
Previously though, Halak has been a positive goaltender throughout his career. Having a more defined role in Vancouver should help as well, as he was expected to shoulder a bit more of the load during his tenure in Boston.
The Canucks won’t need amazing results from Halak either as Demko will be the guy relied on to try to steal games for the team against more difficult opponents, but Halak will need to provide above-average goaltending if he wants to fare better than Holtby did last season for Vancouver with the way the defence is set up. It may be a bit of an uphill climb though, as the Bruins defence was definitely stingier than the Canucks’ last season.
Demko on the other hand, will have to be as good, if not better, than last season. While Demko put up good numbers and did steal a lot of games for the Canucks, he did it behind a team that finished near the bottom of the NHL for CF% and FF%, and despite there being a few new names on the back-end for the Canucks this season, it will be tough for the team to improve those numbers from a purely defensive standpoint.
Demko could be as good as last season and the Canucks could still squeak into a playoff spot, but if he could elevate himself to Vezina level, that may put the Canucks a few wins above where they’re projected and potentially comfortably in the postseason. Asking a goaltender to simply be a Vezina-calibre goalie is definitely much easier said than done, but the combination of Demko’s potential with Clark’s coaching does leave that as a semi-realistic option. Plus, he was near that conversation last year, so if the Canucks did make a run to the playoffs it would not be surprising at all to see him get a nomination.
On the other hand, a drop off in play for Demko could spell disaster for the Canucks’ season. According to Evolving-Hockey, Demko was worth 4.3 wins above replacement last season, 5th in the NHL among goalies. This is behind names like Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, and Marc-Andre Fleury. This may be the worst-case scenario, but if that WAR dropped to somewhere around 0.9, which is where Jacob Markstrom finished last season, that could be the difference between the Canucks making or missing out on the playoffs.
Quite simply, the Canucks cannot afford to regress in between-the-pipes, otherwise all the other big moves the team made this offseason could immediately be irrelevant. The defence improving would be extremely welcome, but that can’t be expected based on the moves they made this offseason. Of course, every team in the NHL needs good goaltending if they are going to make the playoffs, but the Canucks even more so. Thankfully, Demko does have all the tools to be the saviour for the team once again.