The Canucks made a much-needed move on Monday, signing another top college free agent to an entry-level contract. 22-year-old Jake Kielly was one of the best goaltenders in the NCAA this past season and he joins the Canucks on a two-year, two-way contract with a reported average annual value of $925,000.
You might ask what made the signing so needed: from one perspective, the Canucks’ future in net had never looked better.
Jacob Markstrom has been lights out all season for the Canucks, making a legitimate argument to be the team’s MVP over superstar rookie Elias Pettersson. Thatcher Demko has been excellent in the AHL and has made the transition to the NHL as a backup, with eyes on him becoming a starter over the next couple seasons. Michael DiPietro was outstanding in net for a disappointing Team Canada squad at the World Junior Championships and just backstopped the Ottawa 67’s to a first-round sweep in the OHL playoffs.
You can see a distinct line of succession: Demko will back up Markstrom until he’s ready to take over as the number one, at which point DiPietro should be ready to back up Demko until he is ready to take over as the number one.
There’s a saying about mice, men, and best-laid plans, however: they gang aft agley. Or rather, they often go astray. While the Canucks have a solid plan A in place in net, they’ve been lacking a plan B. Goaltenders are tough to project from year-to-year and that’s particularly true of even the best goaltending prospects. Top teams frequently cast a wide net to find a starting goaltender, instead of depending on the accuracy of a single harpoon.
So, from another perspective, there’s a lot of uncertainty between the pipes for the Canucks.
Markstrom took a big step forward this season, but he may not be able to repeat that performance next season for any number of reasons: age, bad luck, regression to his career average, or even, heaven forfend, injuries.
Demko has been a very good AHL starter over the past few seasons, but has faltered in his few NHL starts, with a .903 save percentage this season. Given his demeanour and character, he’ll certainly put in the work this off-season to improve, but what if he never gets to the level of an NHL starter? He would be far from the first highly-touted goaltender prospect to struggle in the NHL.
As for DiPietro, Canucks fans got a firsthand look at just how far away he is from making the NHL when he was forced into action for the Canucks back in February. He still has plenty of potential at just 19, but he’s clearly still several years away, with plenty of room for his development to go sideways.
DiPietro’s start this season was the clearest possible depiction of the Canucks’ lack of depth in net. With Markstrom and Demko injured in the NHL and journeyman Richard Bachman injured in the AHL, the Canucks had no other options at the ready. They rectified that in the following week, trading for Marek Mazanec and signing Michael Leighton, but it was too little, too late.
Besides, both Mazanec and Leighton will be UFAs at season’s end, and neither were ever serious considerations for the Canucks at the NHL level.
That brings us back to Kielly, who fills a vital need for the Canucks as both goaltending depth and intriguing potential.
Kielly’s two-year contract kicks in this season, so he’ll be signed through next season before becoming a restricted free agent. That makes him one of five goaltenders under contract for the Canucks next season, putting him in position to trade starts in the AHL with DiPietro or be the outright starter for the Comets if DiPietro returns to the OHL for one more season.
It seems likely that the Canucks’ limited number of goaltenders helped Kielly with his decision to sign in Vancouver. Kielly is a legitimate prospect with NHL dreams and the Canucks seem like a solid bet for making that dream a reality.
Kielly was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award in each of the last two seasons, even if he didn’t make the top ten either year. This year, he is a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s best goaltender, an award previously won Demko, as well as Jets’ star Connor Hellebuyck.
Kielly’s .929 save percentage was ninth in the NCAA this past season and fourth among goaltenders with at least 30 starts. He was a workhorse for Clarkson, starting all 39 games for the Golden Knights.
It wasn’t just one year of work that got him noticed around the NHL. He had an identical .929 save percentage last season while starting 38 of 40 games for Clarkson, good for seventh in the NCAA and, again, fourth among goaltenders with at least 30 starts. Kielly has been a picture of consistency in the Clarkson net.
Kielly was twice named the ECAC Goaltender of the Month this season and earned the honour three times in the 2017-18 season. He was also named the MVP of the Desert Hockey Classic, a late-December tournament between Clarkson, Minnesota State, host Arizona State, and defending national champions Minnesota-Duluth.
At 6’2”, Kielly has decent size for a goaltender and, from scouting reports, has the athleticism and positioning to go with it. He has described his goaltending as a cross between styles.
“I never want to say I’m a butterfly goalie or a stand-up goalie,” said Kielly. “I really don’t like when I see bigger goalies who just play like a big goalie: down, lazy and back in the crease.
“It’s something I’ve worked on the past couple of years. I want to have quick feet with a bigger frame. Knowing when to use my big body in certain situations. A mix of butterfly and a quick reaction goalie is what I’m trying to be.”
Last summer, Kielly attended the Buffalo Sabres’ prospect development camp and, the summer before that, the Minnesota Wild’s prospect development camp, so he’s clearly been on NHL radars for a long time despite going undrafted. Kielly’s longtime teammate Nico Sturm, himself a top college free agent with a rumoured connection to Vancouver, signed with the Wild, but the Canucks nabbed Kielly away from any other teams that might have wanted him.
Signing Kielly is a solid step towards stronger goaltending depth for the Canucks. Perhaps everything will work out for Markstrom, Demko, and DiPietro, but adding another goaltender with NHL potential gives the Canucks a better chance at finding a future number one.