If anyone should know the importance of goaltending in the NHL, it’s Canucks fans. They’ve seen the highs and lows, from the dominant offence of the West Coast Express never getting anywhere in the playoffs due to subpar goaltending to Roberto Luongo immediately elevating a mediocre team into relevance when he arrived.
Even this season, the importance of goaltending is all-too clear. The gap between Thatcher Demko’s .915 save percentage and Braden Holtby’s .893 save percentage is evident on the ice.
That’s why it’s very concerning that Kevin Woodley, who writes for NHL.com and OnGoal Magazine, is starting to sound the alarm about the future of Canucks goaltending.
No, not Demko, who is rounding out into a legitimate number one goaltender for the Canucks, but two other pieces of the goaltending puzzle: goaltending coach Ian Clark and the team’s top goaltending prospect, Michael DiPietro. Woodley voiced his concerns on The Athletic’s VANCast with Jeff Paterson and Thomas Drance.
On Ian Clark: "I think there’s a good chance he walks."
Ian Clark has been a vital component of Canucks goaltending in two stints with the team. He’s been credited with helping turn Jacob Markstrom from a player that cleared waivers to one of the top goaltenders in the NHL.
In fact, Clark was one of the major reasons why the Canucks felt confident about signing Braden Holtby after the worst season of his career.
“Ian is excellent at what he does. Every goalie that we've ever given him, from the start of the year to the end of the year, you see how much they improve, including Jacob Markstrom,” said Jim Benning. “Braden had Mitch Korn in Washington for a while and thrived under him and Ian Clark comes from that same school of thought as far as goaltending is concerned. I expect Ian to do an excellent job with him and I think he's gonna have a real good season for us.”
While Holtby has had trouble adjusting to Clark’s coaching to start the season — Woodley described him as “caught between his old instincts and this new foundation” — Clark has certainly helped develop Demko, same as he did for Markstrom.
Markstrom hasn’t looked quite so good away from Clark’s influence in Calgary, similar to how Sergei Bobrovsky’s game dropped off after he left Columbus.
The problem is that Clark’s contract with the Canucks expires after this season, same as with head coach Travis Green. If Clark doesn’t have a new contract by now, that’s a major cause for concern according to Woodley.
“If there isn’t a deal in place at this point, March 9th, then I’m not sure he’s back next year, because this is exactly the time of year when he made up his mind in Columbus, three years ago, that he was out,” said Woodley. “The fact they haven’t negotiated with this coaching staff and included him in that process, as a guy who doesn’t have a contract for next year, I think there’s a chance he walks. I think there’s a good chance he walks.”
That would be disastrous for the Canucks, as Clark is arguably the best goaltending coach in the business. Woodley pointed out that Clark would have plenty of employment options if he left the Canucks and he had no compunctions about leaving Columbus without another NHL job lined up.
“I said this often before his last extension came that you do not want to let this guy get into the final months of the season without a contract, because he will walk,” said Woodley. “That would be my hunch right now without any inside knowledge in terms of whether those negotiations have taken place. If he hasn’t gotten a contract, I don't expect him back.”
At Friday’s press conference with Jim Benning, Woodley asked the Canucks GM directly whether he was concerned that either Travis Green or other members of his staff might leave at the end of the season without a new contract. Benning stuck with a stock answer.
“Like I don't comment on player negotiations, I'm not going to comment on coaching negotiations,” said Benning. “But it's something that we would like to get done moving forward.”
If Woodley is right, it might already be too late.
On Michael DiPietro: "The one thing that you can’t skip is games played."
The other issue is Michael DiPietro. The Canucks’ top goaltending prospect is currently on the taxi squad as the team’s third goaltender.
The problem is that DiPietro hasn’t played an actual game since March 11, 2020. It’s been nearly a full year since he’s played and, unless one of Demko or Holtby gets injured, he could go 19 months without playing a professional game. That’s disastrous for a still-developing 21-year-old goaltender.
“I’m going to have to take a deep breath here, because I’m trying not to lose it,” said Woodley. “What they’re doing to Mikey DiPietro right now borders on — criminal is too strong a word but it’s not far from it.”
This was a concern raised before the start of the season and Benning acknowledged on Friday that DiPietro’s situation is far from ideal.
“He needs to play, I understand that,” said Benning. “But in the meantime, he's practicing everyday, he's working with Ian Clark. I think there's some benefits to that too but I agree with you, at some point here we gotta have to figure out to get him some games.”
Getting one-on-one time with Clark is certainly a positive — of course, if it’s such a positive, then Clark should probably have a new contract — but it doesn’t replace playing actual games.
“I’ve talked to other organizations that have models in terms of goaltenders and how they get to the NHL and the one thing that you can’t skip is games played,” said Woodley. “As Mitch [Korn] has told me many times, ‘Beer pong is a game of shots. Goalie is a game of patterns and the only way to start to put those patterns together and recognize them is to play games.’”
The one point of optimism is that DiPietro is a tireless worker and a sponge for anything Clark gives him. Woodley spoke glowingly about the way DiPietro adapted to adjusting his game “on the fly” last season while playing as a number one goaltender with the Utica Comets as a 20-year-old rookie. Even without games, DiPietro’s work ethic is unimpeachable, basically having to be chased off the ice after practices and morning skates.
Woodley described one optional skate where DiPietro worked one-on-one with Clark for an hour, then “set up his own goaltending school” at one end of the rink while Clark worked with the night’s starting goaltender, then roped the Canucks’ skills coaches into creating a goalie session while Clark worked with the backup goaltender.
Even when the Zambonis were ready to come out, DiPietro had pucks set up around the zone as visual markers so that as he continued to practice his patterns with everyone else off the ice, he had pucks that he could “track” visually. After two hours and 15 minutes of work, Clark eventually had to kick him off the ice.
All of that work, however, has to be integrated into the game itself or those practiced patterns never become instinctual.
“This kid is working his ass off,” said Woodley, “but to not be able to connect those dots — to figure out those patterns at the pro level, to read the game — for 19 months, it’s absurd. It’s freaking absurd!”
If the Canucks had a journeyman goaltender on the taxi squad as the team’s number three, DiPietro could instead be with the Utica Comets, playing games.
“You’ve got a shared affiliate agreement and the Blues sent you Jon Gillies, for crying out loud,” said Woodley. “[DiPietro] would be starting as much as they wanted. He could just basically start almost every game down there and instead he’s practicing. There’s no way to spin it.”
A penny saved could cost the Canucks future saves
The common factor in both issues — Clark and DiPietro — is money.
The Canucks have tightened their belts in many ways, both on-ice and off-ice. With no incoming ticket revenue, the Canucks have cut back. You can even see it in their goaltending: Holtby has a back loaded contract, with most of the actual cash spent in the second year of the deal in order to save money this year.
New contracts for the coaching staff, including Clark, could cost the Canucks money. What if, for example, the Canucks let Benning go at the end of the season and the new GM wanted to put their own stamp on the team with an all new head coach? Francesco Aquilini would be left footing the bill for two coaches instead of just one.
Likewise, acquiring a journeyman goaltender for the taxi squad costs money, more than the $70,000 per year DiPietro makes on the AHL side of his two-way deal.
“I get it. You’re losing money. There’s no ticket revenue. You can’t move your farm team to Canada like the Calgary Flames did. You didn’t have the benefit of having a farm team already in Canada like Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto did. I get it,” said Woodley. “Claim a freaking guy off waivers and use him as the number three and send Mikey to Utica, for crying out loud! Are you kidding me?”
If it is just a money-saving measure, that’s not on Benning. But, for the cost of a journeyman goaltender, the Canucks have set back DiPietro’s career.
“This kid was on a path to the National Hockey League and you just derailed it by at least a full year and potentially did damage beyond that,” said Woodley. “If it wasn’t for the character and the work ethic of this kid, it would probably be even worse.”
It’s a matter of short-term thinking. As painful as it might be financially in the short-term, the Canucks need to take care of their goaltending because it will have long-term consequences.
“The franchise is still going to exist next year, you’re still going to need a goalie coach, right?” said Woodley. “You’re still going to need prospects that are ready to go. What happens when you have to go into free agency two years from now, because that’s the year that Mikey Dipietro could have been ready but you just robbed him of 19 months without a game?”
Those are questions that deserve answers. The problem is that Benning probably isn’t the person who can provide those answers.
“It sure seems like the question goes above Jim Benning as to why there isn’t an option to create a situation where Mikey Dipietro can be playing games right now,” said Woodley.