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The Apologist: Goalie Pipeline

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No longer graveyard or controversy!

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

No matter what you have to say about General Manager Jim Benning (GMJB), you have to admit he’s shown that he is keenly aware of the importance of goaltending, and he’s done a fine job of matching the roster to the development of the club.

I’ll be fair and say that some people criticize Benning for some UFA signings. Chief among them was an UFA the wrong side of 30 that Benning knew from his previous team. Benning wanted experience, and thought that a UFA with a reasonably good pedigree from a winning team would fill a perceived need. The market cost demanded a contract at $6 million per year. At the time people thought it was an overpay, and that the player would inevitably decline.

That player was Ryan Miller. Benning brought Miller in after the goalie controversy ofLuongo and Schneider were traded. GMJB decided that neither Eddie Lack nor Jacob Markstrom were ready to be more than backup options. Since he was part of the Sabres team that drafted Miller, Benning felt he knew what he was getting.

This was one of Benning’s first moves as a GM, and in hindsight he was spot on. Lack had finished out the previous season struggling with a 16-17-5 record and his .912 all situation save percentage was 34th in the league (for players with at least 20 games) according to Natural Stat Trick. Markstrom had gone from perhaps the top goalie prospect in the world, to Panthers cast-off, to cratering so badly he cleared waivers to land in Utica as the backup to journeyman Richard Bachman.

Miller did indeed give the young goalies a good idea of the work ethic needed to be an NHL starter, he gave the team confidence that he’s make the saves he was supposed to make, and he even stole a few games. There are some who say that without Miller the Canucks would not have made the playoffs in his first year. There are also some that say that might have been better - but you can’t blame Miller for winning. Besides, Eddie Lack came on like gangbusters when Miller got injured, so Lack sharing the crease should share some of the blame (er, credit!) for dragging an old (according to Torts “Stale”) core into the playoffs.

For me the entire $18M was paid in full the moment that Miller dropped the gloves to go after Leafs goon Matt Martin when Martin jumped diminutive rookie defenceman Troy Stetcher, who was playing in his fourth NHL game.

Three years later, having provided full value to the Canucks when they needed a steadying influence, Ryan Miller took a contract closer to his movie star wife.

That left Jacob Markstrom in the presumptive starter spot. As it turns out Benning had a plan for Marky all along. He was played in the ghost exhibition game (which was not televised, or publicized) the season Miller came to town, and was then the first player the Canucks put on waivers. It was later revealed that Marky was having a really great camp, and the Canucks wanted to sneak him through waivers so that they could keep both Lack and Marky. Markstrom was the big beneficiary of coaching from goalie guru Rollie Melanson, including when Melanson moved east for personal reasons but remained in the organization. It is clear now, this was a great resource to Jacob Markstrom, and possibly also Thatcher Demko.

While Markstrom honed is craft in Utica and got ready for the NHL, Eddie Lack never caught on in the crease. It became clear (to GMJB at least) that he was a fun and well-liked goof-ball fan favourite, but not a bona fide NHL starter. Lack was traded to Carolina at the draft and faded into obscurity. The picks he garnered were used to draft defenceman Guillame Brisbois who is doing well enough in Utica that he might be an NHL call-up as early as next year; and a seventh round pick used for centre Brett McKenzie who is in the EHCL.

This did leave a hole at backup, and with Markstrom still somewhat untested as a true starter, many were calling for a 1A/1B tandem. Our friends at Pass it to Bulis wrote an interesting speculation piece that looks pretty smart now.

Anders Nillson looked like someone who could share the workload, possibly steal the starter’s spot, and the internal competition would be good for both of the big Swedes. At this point in the Canucks trajectory the team was certainly in the rebuild zone, so the the small risk of two untested goal tenders was not going to cost this version of the Canucks a shot at the Stanley Cup. Perhaps best of all, Nilsson came as an UFA so he didn’t cost any draft picks, prospects, or roster players.

Unfortunately Nilsson didn’t perform as well as hoped, and he seemed to lose the confidence of the coach. When he was traded a few weeks ago to make room for Thatcher Demko the modest package that he returned was considered by many as a pretty good deal for a salary dump and opening a spot on the roster. Nillson and AHL forward Darren Archibald were traded for a call-up level goalie (Mike McKenna), a bubble Centre (Tom Pyatt), who has cleared waivers, and a 6th round pick.

Ironically, the return was so good that the call-up level goalie Mike McKenna only lasted one game on the bench before being claimed off waivers by Philadelphia on January 4th. If they waive him within 30 days and the Canucks claim him he can go straight to Utica. If not, finding the replacement for a 35 year old AHL goalie is not a huge problem, and not an issue for the big club at all. At the moment Ivan Kulbakov is getting his chance to shine while being backed up by PTO Michael Leighton until Richard Bachman gets healthy.

Thatcher Demko was picked in the second round (36 overall) in 2014 by rookie GM Jim Benning, and he’s been percolating in the minors. With Markstrom playing the best hockey of his career, there is no pressure on Demko. This is the perfect time to bring Demko up and it is expected that he will be a decent backup, with plenty of potential to take over as the starter when Markstrom’s contract is up in the summer of 2020. Either or both of these two could end up being worth an extension. If it’s both, perhaps one of them becomes trade bait when the team is getting good.

One of the reasons there’s no need to be concerned with the situation in Utica is, of course, that the AHL is a development league and giving prospects (like Kulbakov) a chance is fine, winning is secondary. The other reason for calm that immediately jumps to mind is another Benning Draft pick: Mikey DiPietro.

Drafted in 2017 with the 3rd round 64th overall pick this athletic young goalie prospect is the darling of the Hockey Canada braintrust. Aside from helping his OHL team win the Memorial cup in 2017, he was a late cut to Team Canada for the 2018 for the World Junior Championships, and the undisputed starter for Team Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championships boasting a sparkling .957 save percentage in the preliminary rounds. It would not be odd to see DiPietro in Utica next year, and keeping a spot open for him seems like a good idea. If so, and he spends a couple of years in the AHL, this personable Italian-Canadian goalie could be called up to the NHL just as the contract for another fan favourite Italian-Canadian goalie comes off the books. That’s bound to warm the heart of the owners and fans alike.

So there you have it. A masterclass of how to manage the constant uncertainty of drafting, developing, trading for, and trading away the unpredictable and highly valuable creatures we know as Goal Tenders. For most old school Hockey Men and all Advanced Stats Nerds the conventional wisdom is that Goalies are voodoo, and when you luck into one you ride him hard, sign him long term, and swallow the eventual decline when you can least afford it.

Not for GMJB.

1) He picked up Miller as an experienced former Vezina winner for a smooth transition

2) He completed a reclamation project turning Markstrom into an NHL starter,

2) He got something for nothing when he traded Lack,

3) He got Nillson for nothing (but money) as insurance and to push Markstrom,

4) He then got something for Nilsson when Demko was ready

5) He drafted what turned out to be a starting goalie at the first draft he ran

6) He then drafted another promising kid to be ready as Marky’s contract expires

Not too shabby.