It figures. As soon as the Vancouver Canucks finally bite the bullet and send Michael DiPietro down to the Utica Comets to get some playing time, Thatcher Demko suffers an injury the very next day.
Demko’s injury isn’t expected to be serious and he’s currently day-to-day. Of course, so was Elias Pettersson when he initially got injured and he’s likely out for the rest of the season. Hopefully, Demko will return much sooner.
With Demko out, the net belongs to Braden Holtby, with untested prospect Arturs Silovs, who has played all of one AHL game, backing him up. Fortunately for the Canucks, Holtby has been lights out in the team’s first few games back from their COVID-19 outbreak.
Holtby has a .935 save percentage in his last three starts, keeping the Canucks in games just long enough for them to win. That’s monumentally better than his save percentage from before the outbreak, a brutal .894 save percentage that saw Holtby allowing back-breaking goals on a near nightly basis.
It’s a small sample size but it’s not just the numbers — Holtby looks like a different goaltender. His puck-tracking looks improved and he’s beating passes across the ice, getting set before shots are taken. Previously, he would often still be in motion as players shot the puck, reaching across the net and leaving large gaps for shooters to exploit.
Holtby’s earlier struggles and Demko’s excellence meant it was an easy decision to give Demko the bulk of the starts. To end the season, however Holtby was going to need to play a lot, even before Demko got injured.
"Sometimes you have some growing pains."
Coming off the worst season of his career, Holtby was looking to have a bounce back season while working with a new goalie coach, Ian Clark. Making significant changes to his game, however, was challenging this season.
“It has been harder, especially not having training camp or exhibition games to kind of feel things out,” said Holtby. “Just the way that the year shaped up, obviously, when you cut off those 30 games or whatever, it makes the start of the year seem that much more important from a standings perspective...Sometimes you have some growing pains and you just move on and push forward and there wasn't an opportunity to do that this year.”
According to Holtby, things were starting to click recently before the COVID-19 outbreak.
“In the last month, two months I think we've got some real good time to work and try and find that happy medium on the changes and improvements we've tried to put forward,” said Holtby. “I think it's fun, it's always fun to try new things and find different ways to grow your game.”
The bet with Holtby was always that Clark would help him get back to the goaltender he once was. The hope, of course, was that it wouldn’t take as long as it seems to have taken.
Now the Canucks just have to hope that Holtby can keep playing at a high level for the rest of the season, for more than one reason.
"Playoffs? I just hope we can win a game."
The Canucks need Holtby to excel is that they have a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. Thanks to the Montreal Canadiens crashing and burning, the Canucks could catch them in the standings if they go on a run. The odds of going on a run given their unforgiving schedule are slim, however, and they’ll need some stellar goaltending.
The other reason is that it would be really helpful if Holtby puts on a showcase that makes the Seattle Kraken want to take him in the expansion draft.
There’s a clear parallel between Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury when it comes to the upcoming expansion draft. The Vegas Golden Knights took Fleury as a veteran, Stanley Cup-winning goaltender with great personality, who could easily endear himself to fans of the fledgling franchise. Holtby likewise has the Cup, veteran experience, and great personality to play the same role with the Kraken.
The only issue for Holtby is that his play had slipped so much that the Kraken would have no interest in him. If Holtby can show in this last month of the season that he has once again found his game, maybe the Kraken would reconsider.
That would help the Canucks’ salary cap situation significantly. Holtby’s $4.3 million cap hit — along with a few other contracts — will make it tough for the Canucks to make improvements around their young core. Freeing up that $4.3 million and replacing Holtby with a cheaper goaltender, perhaps even DiPietro, would make a big difference.
Hopefully, the Kraken won't also take Ian Clark.