On Monday evening, Jaroslav Halak played his ninth game of the season for the Vancouver Canucks.
And, if incoming GM Patrik Allvin is looking to make the smart move right off the bat, Monday was also Halak’s last game with the team.
To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Halak’s play in that game — 20 saves and a .952 save percentage in a 3-1 win over the Blackhawks — or with his play throughout the 2021/22 season as a whole. He’s been a good backup, and maybe even a great one, for years now, and this year is no exception.
Trading away Halak at this point would have little to do with performance. It would be a bonus move, and we don’t mean “extra” or “additional.”
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We mean a “bonus move” as in a move motivated by an upcoming bonus payment — specifically, the additional $1.25 million in salary and cap hit that Halak is owed the second he plays his tenth game on the season. Whomever Halak is playing for at the time absorbs the full cap hit of a performance bonus the second it is triggered. If cap space isn’t available for that bonus immediately, it gets shuffled back until that space is opened up, and if it doesn’t happen that same season, the bonus shifts over to the start of the next season.
Given that the Canucks are tight up against the cap at the moment, that bonus money would almost certainly be applied to the 2022/23 season. That’s something they really can’t afford, especially if it’s avoidable.
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Thankfully, it’s totally avoidable.
As of this writing, the Canucks have 36 games left on their regular season schedule. Thatcher Demko projects to start around 75% of them, at least, and more than that if the team continues to chase the playoffs.
Of those 36 games, seven of them are the second half of back-to-backs. A backup goaltender is going to be needed on those particular outings.
The rest of the starts? Those probably all go to Demko. Whether it be Halak or someone else, the Canucks’ backup goalie is only going to get in ten more games through the rest of the season, at most.
Speaking of someone else, it’s time to talk Spencer Martin. The 26-year-old, acquired this past offseason from the Tampa Bay Lightning, came into the year slotted as the #2 or perhaps even #3 on the Abbotsford Canucks goaltending depth chart.
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But Martin had other ideas.
Through training camp and into the early regular season, Martin stole the Abbotsford starting job away from Mike DiPietro and Arturs Silovs. That’s why it was Martin, and not either of the other two, who got the call-up when both Demko and Halak hit the COVID-19 protocol. And when Martin got his shot in the spotlight, he shone.
In his first NHL action in almost half-a-decade, Martin played 189 minutes across three games for the Canucks, allowing just five goals and sporting a GAA of 1.59 and a save percentage of .958.
In short, Martin has been stellar, and he looks perfectly capable of being an NHL backup for at least the rest of this season. And, yes, that’s an awful small sample size to wager on. But the stakes are also pretty low.
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By trading Halak now, the Canucks would only be relying on Martin for about seven-to-ten more starts through the rest of the year. In a tight playoff race, those points will still matter, and Halak might be the historically safer bet, but…
  1. Martin has outperformed Halak so far this year, and he may not hurt the Canucks’ chances to win much, if at all.
  2. At 26, Martin could be a classic late-blooming goaltender, and an extra handful of games would give the Canucks the chance to see what they have in him.
  3. The Canucks playoff hopes are slim, anyway.
Next year, Vancouver plans to be more competitive. Part of that involves the freeing up of cap space. If you keep Halak beyond his ninth game, you’re essentially betting that Martin will regress, Halak will perform better from here on out, and that his handful of starts are truly going to matter.
None of those seem incredibly likely, and the cost is a guaranteed $1.25 million on the cap for 2022/23.
Alternatively, the Canucks can trade Halak to the highest bidder, make Martin the full-time backup, and see what happens. In a best-case scenario, he continues to excel, becoming either the long-term backup to Demko or a valuable trade chip. Or, Martin could flounder a bit under the additional pressure, but then Demko just starts more often, and the playoff hopes remain relatively consistent.
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Or, in a worst-case scenario, Halak is traded, Demko gets hurt, and Martin is unable to step up to the plate as the temporary starter. But who cares at that point? The Canucks are going nowhere this year without Demko. Really, whoever is backing him up is an ancillary concern, at best.
Either way, they’re left with an extra $1.25 million to play around with next year, which covers the increase in buyout penalties due to Braden Holtby and Jake Virtanen. It could make all the difference in extending Brock Boeser, or in retaining someone like Tyler Motte, or in adding to the roster via free agency. $1.25 million isn’t an excessive amount of money by NHL standards, but it’s not nothing. And when you’re as tight up against the cap as the Canucks are and project to continue to be, it absolutely matters.
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So, there you have it. From where we’re sitting, this looks like a total slam-dunk. A no-brainer. A gimme. If there’s a hitch to be found, it’s in Halak’s NMC, which cannot be worked around. If he’s not willing to approve it, he cannot be traded, waived, or demoted. On that account, all we can hope for is that the appeal of actually playing games is stronger than that of remaining on the bench in Vancouver.
So, the plan is simple. Trade Halak before he plays another game. Call up Martin and see what he’s got. If he succeeds, great. If he doesn’t, oh well. Either way, it’s probably not going to impact the Canucks’ playoff hopes much at all.
That $1.25 million in avoided bonuses, though, may just prove to be the team’s unsung hero in 2022/23.
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