In this Back To/The Future series, Chris Faber and Stephan Roget are making a collaborative effort to learn from the mistakes of the Vancouver Canucks’ recent past and offer solutions to salvage their immediate future — you know, just like Marty McFly did that one time. Each weekly Roget Reverse/Future Faber two-parter will start out with a critical look at some component of the Canucks’ game that went wrong in 2021, and finish by making some suggestions as to how it could get better in 2021/22. Whether you like to grumble about bad things that have already happened or dream about the good things yet to come, CanucksArmy has got what you need.
In the most important slot on the goaltending depth chart, the Canucks experienced enormous success in 2021. Thatcher Demko overcame mounting expectations (and COVID-19) to more-or-less pick up where he’d left off in the playoffs, putting together a season that would have had more Vezina buzz had it been played on a more competitive team.
In the midst of that, Jim Benning and Co. locked Demko up to a five-year extension at slightly below market value, solidifying the starting position for the next half-decade. Which is especially good because pretty much every other goaltender behind Demko in the organization was subject to some form of questionable or downright mismanagement this past season — and it’s put at least one of them on a perilously unique path.
The iffy decisions began during the opening salvo of October’s free agent frenzy, in which the Canucks signed Braden Holtby to a two-year, $4.3 million contract. At the time, there was still some uncertainty about Demko’s long-term consistency and a veteran backup was sought as a safe alternative, which might sound personally reasonable — except for the fact that, by letting Jacob Markstrom go to market, the team had clearly gone all-in on Demko, making a bet-hedge at this point mighty strange. Even then, there were signs aplenty that Holtby wasn’t the best fit for the job.
Though he was just two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup win at the time of his signing, Holtby was also coming off three straight years of regression, stats-wise. Well, now it’s four straight, with his GAA hitting a career-high of 3.67 in Vancouver and his save percentage hitting a career-low of .889. Though there were some brief flashes of brilliance — most notably in the post-COVID return-to-play with Demko still on the sidelines — Holtby generally made the team in front of him even worse.
And, yeah, nobody can help but notice that Holtby’s bloated salary happens to be just a hair more than Tyler Toffoli was asking for. But even if the Canucks were dead-set on spending that money on a backup goalie, there were better, safer, and cheaper options.
Cam Talbot, coming off a rebound season with the Flames, signed for almost a million less and went on to be Minnesota’s MVP in the playoffs.
Thomas Greiss signed for about the same as Talbot — and for only two years, to boot — and proceeded to put up excellent numbers on a Red Wings squad even lowlier than the Canucks.
Even a bargain bin addition like Craig Anderson, Anton Forsberg, or Keith Kinkaid would have performed about as well, if not better, than Holtby, while still leaving plenty of cap space to be spent elsewhere.
Now, the Canucks are faced with a decision between squeezing that $4.3 million into their already overburdened cap structure in 2021/22 or buying out Holtby’s surprisingly buyout-friendly contract.
Unfortunately, some strange choices made elsewhere have left them without an heir apparent.
To fully understand the goaltending depth dearth, we have to go back into Vancouver draft history.
Prior to the arrival of Benning in 2014, and the subsequent drafting of Demko at 36th overall, the Canucks had drafted few goaltenders, and all of them were duds: Morgan Clark, Joe Cannata, Joanathan Ihlati, and David Honzik.
Demko obviously worked out just fine, but since him the Canucks have only drafted three goalies through six drafts: Michael DiPietro, Matthew Thiessen, and Arturs Silovs.
Thiessen, with his 4.23 GAA and .878 save-percentage for U. of Maine in Hockey-East this past season, is already a write-off.
Silovs, who started the season as a 19-year-old, went on a long, strange journey in 2021. After a 2019/20 spent with the Barrie Colts, Silovs went home to Latvia at the outset of the year, where he played a total of eight games between HS Riga, HK Mogo, and Team Latvia at the Deutschland Cup.
When hockey returned to North America, so did Silovs. After training camp with the Canucks, Silovs was loaned to the Manitoba Moose, where the Winnipeg Jets organization was kind enough to dress him…for exactly one game.
Silovs did get a little time with the Canucks themselves, both on the bench as backup and on the taxi squad, but didn’t spend nearly as much time with goalie coach Ian Clark as the team probably would have liked. Instead, he was stuck on another organization’s farm team, not playing, and probably not receiving all that much dedicated coaching.
But if you think Silovs got a rough ride, it’s nothing compared to the anti-odyssey experienced by Mike DiPietro.
Hot on the heels of a stellar rookie pro campaign for the Utica Comets, DiPietro arrived in training camp at age 21 and impressed — but stealing the backup job from the freshly-signed Holtby was never in the cards.
DiPietro was assigned to the taxi squad amid whispers that the Canucks would seek out an opportunity for him with one of the Canadian AHL franchises, but that never materialized. And, given how it went down for Silovs in Manitoba, maybe that was for the best.
So, DiPietro sat. And sat. And sat. Finally, in late April, DiPietro was assigned to Utica — just before he would have got an opportunity to backup Holtby with Demko still on the sidelines.
After DiPietro cleared quarantine, the Comets had just ten games left on their schedule, but DiPietro didn’t even get into all of those. Instead, St. Louis Blues prospect Joel Hofer took five of the starts and Evan Fitzpatrick took another. Then, the season was over.
To be fair, DiPietro did play excellently in the four games he was fortunate enough to get into, going 3-1-0 and posting a .916 save percentage. But the rust was there, whether it was showing on the ice or not, and DiPietro wasn’t shaking it off from the backup’s chair.
DiPietro did get a chance to travel with Team Canada to the 2021 World Hockey Championships, but saw no game action.
All told, DiPietro dressed for three organizations in 2021 and managed fewer than five games, all of them for the Comets. He went well over a calendar year between starts. And if you’re sick of us using the phrase “perilously unique” already, buckle in, because we’re not done yet.
To back up those words, we decided to do some digging into how many other goalies experienced similar gaps in their development and still managed to put together a reasonable NHL career thereafter.
Rather than quibble about what constitutes a reasonable NHL career, we just looked through the top 64 goalies, in terms of games played, in the league this past year to see if we could find anyone who had made fewer than five starts in any given season during their development.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find much, even after expanding the ballpark.
In 2003/04, a teenaged Brian Elliott played six games for the University of Wisconsin in the NCAA, and started just nine times the following year. He then became an NCAA starter for two seasons before beginning a lengthy pro career.
Back in 2004/05, a 22-year-old Pekka Rinne played just ten games in the SM-Liiga for Karpat. Within two years, he was an NHL starter.
That same season, Semyon Varlamov played eight league games in the third Russian division and four more for the Under-18 team. Within three years he was a regular for the Washington Capitals.
In 2008/09, Scott Wedgewood played a total of nine games for the Plymouth Whalers as a 16-year-old. It would take him nearly a decade thereafter to make it all the way to the NHL.
It’s important to note that, in each of those cases, the seasons lacking in games played came before each goalie’s progression started curving toward the NHL. DiPietro is absolutely unique in having the brakes pumped on his game action at this particular and crucial juncture in his developmental path.
Hey, we’re not here to spread doom and gloom for the loveable DiPietro. He still has buckets of potential, and his career story is far from written. But suffice it to say that IF DiPietro moves on from this developmental nightmare to hold down a lengthy NHL career, he’ll be in extremely exclusive company — solitary company, if we’re being totally honest.
True, DiPietro had some advantages over the others: he took NHL shots in practice for much of the year and worked with Clark on a near-daily basis. He stayed
But any way you slice it, the odds against DiPietro making it to the big leagues have, statistically speaking, been increased by this “lost generation” year in limbo, and that’s frustrating because it’s an issue that largely could have been avoided.
The Canucks should have figured out at the start of the year whether an assignment to a Canadian AHL team was anywhere near possible for DiPietro, and then planned accordingly. The best bet, in retrospect, would have been to assign him to the Comets right away, letting him get in another full season as starter, and signing some other free agent to cover the taxi squad. For the Canucks, the end result would have been the same, but for DiPietro it would have meant a lot more game action.
There’s also this whole, strange notion of “sharing” a farm team. It’s all well and good that the Canucks welcomed the Blues’ prospects onto the Comets for 2021, but that should have been done with some sort of understanding in place as to a priority for the development of Vancouver property. There’s just no conceivable reason why, on a franchise literally owned and operated by the Canucks, DiPietro was sitting out games in favour of Hofer after already sitting out an entire year. Zero. Nada. Unacceptable.
Here, it’s hard not to point at least one of the blaming fingers at Jim Benning and his legendarily good nature. He was obviously a little too patient in waiting for an opportunity for DiPietro and a little too generous when it came to sharing the Comets, and he probably presumed that the Winnipeg Jets would be equally generous when it came to Silovs’ ice-time — but that didn’t happen, and it came at a cost to the development of two key prospects.
Again, it’s not the end of the world. DiPietro and Silovs certainly aren’t write-offs yet, and even if they don’t end up making it, the Canucks now have five years to develop someone else. The sky isn’t falling quite yet.
But, like all but a few goaltending-related decisions made by Benning and Co. this year, the situation simply could have been handled better with a bit of foresight, and it’s frustrating that it wasn’t.
A high-priced veteran backup probably didn’t need to be sought with Demko the newly-anointed starter, and they definitely didn’t need to sign one well into a clear-cut decline.
DiPietro probably didn’t need to sit out a full calendar year, and should have been starting in Utica from the get-go. Silovs probably didn’t need to be stuck backing up another organization’s goalie, and could have just stayed in Europe. The signing of a cheap third-stringer would have solved both issues.
Heck, while we’re at it, there should probably also be more goalie prospects worth talking about than just those two.
Fortunately, if there’s one person who disagrees with the idea that this was a lost year of development for DiPietro, it’s Mikey himself.
While he admitted that his unconventional 2021 season “was probably the toughest thing I’ve had to do mentally in my career” and that “Obviously, this year isn’t ideal for anybody,” he’s also maintained a disposition on his situation that isn’t just optimistic, it’s downright cheery.
“I get a chuckle when people say they’re worried. There’s no need to be worried. This is a game we all love and everybody has a different path. For me, I just got to work with a really, really good goalie coach, in my opinion, the best in the world…
Being able to work with Clarky almost on a daily basis up there was really good from the technical side of the game for me. Now I’m just happy that I can take those technical components that we’ve worked on for so long and I can kind of implement them in a game and in a game-like atmosphere with distractions and different pressures that come with the game, and I’m just super, super grateful for the opportunity to work with Clarky…”
With the player himself hopeful, Clark back under contract, and a presumed return to semi-normalcy for the 2021/22 season, are there better days to come for DiPietro and the goaltenders of the Vancouver Canucks?
We like to think so, but to find out why, you’ll have to tune in tomorrow for the back-half of Back To/The Future and let Chris Faber tell it to ya.