When Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak were sidelined by the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol in January, everybody panicked.
Bruce Boudreau had the ball rolling, and the Canucks were just starting to turn their season around after an abysmal start.
The team had all the momentum in the world and then lost both of their goaltenders, including Demko, who they had relied on heavily up to that point.
This, right before a matchup with the then-league-leading Florida Panthers coming to town.
After a season spent on the taxi squad in 2020-21, Michael DiPietro didn’t look NHL ready as some thought he might be. Arturs Silovs was too young, and Spencer Martin, at the time, was a 26-year-old career AHL netminder with just three NHL games under his belt — all of which were losses that came in the 2016-17 season.
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But then Martin stepped in and stole the show against the Panthers, in one of the most feel-good stories from around the league this year.
In his first start in five years, making his Vancouver Canucks debut, Martin stopped 33 of 34 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Panthers.
Martin was subsequently named the game’s first star and was the story of the night.
“I just felt incredibly blessed to know how hard it is to get to this level. It’s hard to put into one answer but it felt incredible to get an opportunity,” said Martin, who would go on to post two more solid starts, pick up the first win of his career, and post a .958 save percentage over three NHL games with the Canucks.
There are only 32 NHL backup jobs in the NHL, and teams are putting a greater focus on stabilizing the backup position than ever before in an attempt to better manage their starter’s workload. This often leaves less-proven goaltenders like Martin in the minors on two-way contracts for years without much opportunity to hold down a steady NHL job.
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Look no further than the Canucks’ pursual of Braden Holtby — although he was always envisioned as more of a 1B when he was signed — and Jaroslav Halak for evidence of this phenomenon.
You also need not look further than the two aforementioned names — not to mention the cap savings — as evidence of why the Canucks are better off rolling the proverbial dice on Martin next season rather than pursuing a more proven NHL backup on the open market.
Sure, you never know how a goalie will perform when they make that jump, but given how Martin has emerged as one of the AHL’s best goaltenders this season and has a solid three-game NHL sample size — that seems like a safe bet.
Still unproven at the NHL level, Martin will almost certainly come at or near league-minimum on his next contract. This would save the Canucks money on the cap, avoid situations like they had with Holtby and Halak the past two seasons, and blasts the door wide open for Michael DiPietro and Arturs Silovs to take the reins down in Abbotsford.
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Plus, Martin’s success this year hasn’t just come from luck.
Rather, he’s changed his game under the guidance of Abbotsford Canucks goalie coach Curtis Sanford and found results by doing so.
“It’s pretty incredible,” said Martin of his time with the Canucks this season. “I didn’t know what to expect. When you switch organizations, everybody is different, as far as staff, different teammates, and different coaches, but so far it’s been as good as I could have imagined.
“It’s really been a big time of evolution for my game to work with these goalie coaches. It’s more than just a few little things, too. I had fewer games to play at the beginning of the year so I was able to basically practice and buy into their system, both Curtis Sanford and Ian Clark. I’m just trying to come in every day and let them know that I’m ready to work hard so that they can give me whatever’s next for my game.”
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Sanford saw a lot of Martin when the Utica Comets would match up against the Syracruse Crunch — the Tampa Bay Lightning’s farm team — and it was in those showings that Sanford saw the potential in Martin’s game.
“It seemed like when we were in Utica, we were playing them almost every other weekend, so I got to see an awful lot of him,” Sanford told CanucksArmy. “I really liked how he played then. I saw that there was a lot of potential in him, and I kind of mentioned that to RJ [Abbotsford GM Ryan Johnson] every so often. It seemed like whenever we played him in Utica, he had a strong performance against us.
“There’s obviously a lot of potential there and I think he’s always been a really good athlete. He’s always had good technique, but I just kind of wanted to get the opportunity to kind of dig in and not really do too much about the way he played technically, but more like concepts that he could fit into his game that were going to help his technique and allow him to be a foundationally stronger goalie along the way.”
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Sanford’s scouting report appears to have been bang on, as Martin has been eager to implement the changes into his game and has risen from the #3 goaltender in Abbotsford to not only the starter, but also a legitimate option to serve as NHL backup next season.
“It was just a matter of introducing him to a couple of concepts early on,” added Sanford. “He really worked at it. Every time we were on the ice, we really kind of pounded away on a couple of these things and he took the ball and ran with it and he fit them into his game. He deserves all the credit for the changes that he’s made.”
At this point in his career and after the season he just had, Martin is certainly going to be seeking a highly-coveted one-way contract — a contract that guarantees the same salary regardless of whether or not a player is in the AHL or NHL.
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Rather than signing someone from outside their system to come serve as a backup, the Canucks should take advantage of what has clearly been a win for them this season by giving Spencer Martin a job in the NHL next season.