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Could Spencer Martin be the next Jordan Binnington?

"I knew that if I did get a chance, I would try to be as ready as possible."
spencer martin canucks
Spencer Martin has surprisingly excelled in three starts for the Vancouver Canucks with Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak unavailable.

When Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak both entered the NHL’s COVID protocol, it seemed like the Vancouver Canucks were in big trouble. 

The Canucks have depended heavily on their goaltenders this season, with a league-high .940 save percentage at 5-on-5 helping them to the lowest rate of goals against at even strength, making up for their serious struggles on special teams. Demko has done the bulk of the heavy lifting, starting 32 of the team’s 43 starts, but Halak has been solid all season as well, even if the Canucks haven’t provided him with much goal support in his starts.

Losing both Demko and Halak for a stretch of games due to COVID-19 seemed like a dire situation.

To make matters worse, both of the Canucks’ top goaltending prospects — Mikey DiPietro and Arturs Silovs — have struggled in the AHL this season, with both of them posting sub-.900 save percentages for the Abbotsford Canucks.

The Canucks had to turn to Spencer Martin, a 26-year-old goaltender on the verge of being an AHL journeyman. He had just three NHL starts to his name and they came five years earlier with the Colorado Avalanche. Less than two years ago, he spent time in the ECHL.

There was reason to be nervous.

But Martin proved any fears unfounded, earning the Canucks points in all three of his starts. In his first start, he carried the Canucks to the shootout against the high-scoring Florida Panthers with 33 saves on 34 starts. In his second start, he made a whopping 47 saves in an overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

Then, finally, nine years after he was drafted, Martin finally got his first NHL win. His team scored five goals on the Winnipeg Jets in front of him but he still made another 33 saves on 34 shots.

"That's what's propelling me forward right now."

In his first three NHL starts, five years ago, Martin posted an .865 save percentage. In his last  three starts, he has a sparkling .958 save percentage.

It was hard to predict that Martin would perform this well in the NHL because, heading into this season, he had given no sign that he was even capable of doing so. In recent years, he’s frequently been a backup in the AHL and in two of his last three seasons, he’s had a save percentage under .900.

This season, however, he’s been fantastic in Abbotsford, playing leaps and bounds better than DiPietro and Silovs with a .921 save percentage. He started the season as the third-string goaltender, with DiPietro and Silovs playing the bulk of the games through October and November, and that might have been the best possible thing for Martin’s career.

With no games to play, Martin was able to spend extra time with goaltending coaches Ian Clark and Curtis Sanford, so that when he finally got his chance to play more games in December, he was ready.

“I owe them a lot of credit,” said Martin. “When I wasn't playing a ton at the beginning of the year in Abbotsford, I just asked them to stick with me and to continue to work with me, especially Sandman, so that when I did get a chance that I could be at my best. He stuck with me and I feel like that's what's propelling me forward right now, as far as technically.”

"It's more of a Jordan Binnington type thing."

Martin’s sparkling performance has many making comparisons to other goaltenders who had a long journey through the AHL before excelling in the NHL, such as Chris Driedger, who broke through as a backup with the Florida Panthers at 25. Bruce Boudreau drew one particular parallel.

“I think it’s more of a Jordan Binnington type thing,” said Boudreau. “He wasn’t even supposed to be the third goalie in St. Louis, he was the fourth goalie when he got called up. Both are very similar stories.”

Jordan Binnington made one brief appearance in the NHL at age 22 but then had to wait three years before he got another shot at 25. When he finally got his chance, however, he was brilliant for the St. Louis Blues, carrying them from the bottom of the NHL standings all the way to the Stanley Cup.

The story particularly resonates for Martin, who trains with Binnington in the offseason and said he looks up to him. He’s had to wait longer than Binnington did but told himself that if he got his chance, he “would try to be as ready as possible.”

Of course, it’s unlikely that Martin will repeat Binnington’s feat, not just because the Canucks face long odds when it comes to making the playoffs, let alone winning the Stanley Cup. Martin is in a very different situation than Binnington, who only had to be better than Jake Allen and Chad Johnson with the Blues.

The truth is, Martin won’t be leapfrogging over Demko and Halak in the depth chart.

“We know we’ve got another goalie in the system that we can call up and have confidence in anytime,” said Boudreau. “When we do have the two healthy goalies, we will know that we have a third just itching to get to the NHL.”

Martin likewise has no delusions about his position in the Canucks organization.

“Obviously, there's two really good goalies here and even in the depth chart, there's tons of talent in goaltending,” said Martin. “I'm just happy to be a part of that and working with Clarkie, working with Sandman and building my own game.”

"He's started to make inroads and make a name for himself."

With the NHL trade deadline on the horizon, of course, that might change. The Canucks could explore moving Halak to get out from under the onerous $1.5 million bonus he could earn with just two more appearances, a bonus that would go on next season’s salary cap. Of course, Halak has a full no-movement clause, giving him full control over where he goes.

Alternatively, perhaps NHL teams might inquire about acquiring Martin himself.

“He’s started to make inroads and make a name for himself, which is probably the most important thing,” said Boudreau, who knows well the challenges of sticking in the NHL from his days as a player.

Even if it’s just three games, Martin has served notice to the rest of the NHL that he can hang at the NHL level. Don’t underestimate the value of having even a little bit of name recognition. Now, if his name is brought up in an NHL front office, whether in a trade discussion or heading into free agency this summer, decision-makers might recognize him as the goaltender who excelled for the Canucks in a difficult situation.

Martin could still get more opportunities for the Canucks but even if he doesn’t, he likely won’t have to wait another five years for his next NHL opportunity.