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What can Canucks fans expect from Braden Holtby?

The good, the bad and the ugly on Holtby and his fit with the Canucks’ defence corps.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacob Markstrom Era in Vancouver is officially over.

It was an era that at times seemed like would never materialize, but over the past three seasons Markstrom has established himself as one of the top goaltenders in the NHL.

Remember way, way, waaaaaay back in 2014 (insert haunting Willie D flashback) when the Canucks placed Markstrom on waivers? Well… it’s safe to say that Marky has come a long, long way in the years since. He’s now a bonafide star goaltender and he has a $36 million contract to prove it.

Just how good has Markstrom been? Sure, us Canucks fans have been pumping his tires for a couple years now, but that’s mostly just #CanucksTwitter bluster, right?

Wrong. The guy is legit.

Markstrom has led the entire NHL over the past two seasons combined in goals prevented. In other words, he’s stopped more expected goals than any other goaltender in the NHL over the past two years. And as a result… $36 million sheets.

We can argue whether or not Canucks GM Jim Benning should have upped his reported four year offer to Markstrom to match the Calgary Flames’ six year, $36 million offer but we could also argue over the colour of the sky as well. What’s done is done and, for better or worse, Markstrom is now a member of the Flames (puke emoji). The Canucks will now turn to the tandem of youngster Thatcher Demko and veteran Braden Holtby for at least the next two seasons.

Canucks fans are hoping that Demko’s three game post-season showing against the Vegas Golden Knights is a sign of things to come for the 24 year old netminder, but if it’s not at least the team will have a capable second option in Holtby to turn to. At least that’s how the theory goes, how things play out on the ice though remains to be seen.

Before I bury this new tandem too much, I will say that there’s reason to believe that Demko and Holtby can be an effective pairing for the Canucks. BUT… there’s also reason to believe that the team will take a giant step back in goal simply because they don’t have Markstrom any longer. Personally, I don’t love the contract that the Flames gave Markstrom and I feel that Holtby is a good bet at the price the Canucks paid. But, I also feel that on paper the Canucks aren’t as good in goal as they were heading into last season and the underlying numbers for both Markstrom and Holtby help prove this point.

NHL: JAN 16 Coyotes at Canucks

This past season Markstrom was +20.16 in goal differential, which put him second in the NHL behind only Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck (+20.73). Markstrom’s +1.6 save percentage differential was best in the NHL ahead of Hellebuyck (+1.3 %) and Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask (+1.5 %). What this means is that based on shot quality Markstrom’s raw .911 save percentage is actually equivalent to a .926 save percentage. Among goalies who played 40 games or more, only Rask had a better save percentage (.928) and let’s be honest… the Canucks don’t exactly have as sound a defensive game as the Bruins.

So we’ve established that Markstrom is like… really, really, REALLY good, right?

Well, how about the new guy?

In Holtby’s case it’s a little more difficult to sift through the numbers and determine where his real value lies, but let’s see what we can dig up. Well for starters Holtby had the lowest expected save percentage on the Capitals last season at just .879. If that statistic frightens you, well you can take some solace in the fact that the Capitals had the lowest expected save percentage amongst starters in the enitre NHL. The Capitals under former head coach Todd Reirden absolutely bled scoring chances to the point where they turned Holtby from one of the NHL’s biggest stars into a sub .900 save percentage goaltender. In fact, the Capitals ranked in the bottom four in the NHL for breakaways against, screens against and plays across the defensive zone slot. In other words, Holtby was left hung out to dry more than any other goalie in the NHL last season. So, ironically Holtby’s job actually gets easier by moving to Vancouver.

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals - Game Five Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

According to statistics provided by Clear Sight Analystics via In Goal Magazine and TSN 1040 contributor Kevin Woodley, Holtby is projected to post a +1.62 goal differential using the same workload data as Markstrom from the 2019-20 season. So if you’re keeping a running tally here that means the Canucks could conceivably give up 19.11 more goals in 2020-21 with Holtby between the pipes.

But here’s the thing…

The Canucks won’t be relying on Holtby the way they’ve been relying on Markstrom for the past two seasons. Fans and analysts alike predict that Demko will get a much larger role moving forward and that he and Holtby will comprise a 1A/1B tandem, not unlike the Markstrom and Ryan Miller tandem from Miller’s last two seasons with the Canucks.

I’ll leave the Demko analysis for another day, but suffice it to say that outside of a three game stint this past summer he hasn’t shown the capability to be a reliable starting goaltender in the NHL. There’s reason to believe that that can change with more opportunity and I’m personally bullish that he’ll fulfill his potential, but the fact of the matter is that Demko still represents a giant question mark for the Canucks.

We know who Jacob Markstrom is and what he brings. We think we know who Braden Holtby is and what he brings. Frankly, we’re only beginning to understand who Thatcher Demko is and what he brings.

Besides Demko though, the biggest question mark facing the Canucks’ goaltending situation next season is what happens on the blue line. With so much turnover amongst the Canucks’ defence corps, there’s an opportunity for head coach Travis Green and defensive coach Nolan Baumgartner to tweak their strategy so that it’s more in line with the strengths and weaknesses of both Demko and Holtby.

The Canucks were a bottom five team in the NHL in terms of giving up high danger scoring chances on lateral plays across the slot. Markstrom was +8 in expected goals on plays like this… Holtby was -10. If the Canucks continue to employ a defensive zone strategy that serves up cross ice scoring plays in the slot, they absolutely will give up more goals moving forward. A lot more.

Vancouver Canucks v Vegas Golden Knights - Game Two Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

On the surface, Holtby appears to be a poor fit with the Canucks defence. But this is a defence that’s in transition. Quinn Hughes will continue to play the biggest role on this team. Nate Schmidt will force Alex Edler down the lineup. For better or worse Tyler Myers will take on more significant matchups. It still remains to be seen what happens with the Canucks bottom pairing, but you can expect a rookie like Olli Juolevi and/or Brogan Rafferty to get some significant minutes, as well. Here’s hoping the Canucks’ coaching staff and this new defensive group can devise and implement a strategy that limits plays that exploit Holtby’s weaknesses.

For what it’s worth, Holtby himself isn’t concerned with any perceived ill-fit between his style of play and the Canucks’ defensive strategy.

“You try and know your strengths, I think that’s one of the most important things of having success is knowing yourself and I’m a guy that believes in hard work, competitiveness and a hard style of hockey, and I see a lot of the players on the Canucks that fit into that mold,” Holtby said in the most recent of In Goal Magazine. “From an outsider looking in, I think it’s going to be a great fit.”

Here’s hoping, Braden. Otherwise we could be looking at a 60+ game season from Demko.