That was a disaster.
Thanks to a series of unfortunate events, the Canucks ended up starting 19-year-old goaltender Michael DiPietro in his first NHL game against arguably the best team in the Western Conference, who are the second-highest scoring team in the league. It wasn’t ideal. It was also completely avoidable.
The unfortunate events started in December when Richard Bachman — the depth goaltender for the Canucks, not Stephen King’s pen name — suffered a season-ending achilles tear.
Then, a month ago, Jim Benning executed a nice, tidy trade: Anders Nilsson was sent to the Ottawa Senators, which freed up a spot for Thatcher Demko, and the Canucks brought back Mike McKenna as part of the return to provide goaltending depth for the Utica Comets. Everything was hunky-dory.
Unfortunately, McKenna never made it to the Comets. The Philadelphia Flyers, desperate for any and all goaltenders given their injury troubles, claimed McKenna off waivers. No problem: once their goaltenders returned from injury, the Flyers would have to waive McKenna and the Canucks could claim him back and send him straight to Utica.
Except the Flyers instead sent McKenna down to the AHL on a conditioning stint, neatly avoiding the waiver wire. McKenna can stay on a conditioning stint for up to 14 days. As of Monday, he’d been with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the AHL for 12 days.
That leaves the Canucks with just three goaltenders on an NHL contract and one of them is DiPietro, who is playing for the Ottawa 67’s in the OHL. The other two are Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.
A week ago, Demko tweaked his knee in warm-up, and the Canucks brought up DiPietro from the 67’s on an emergency recall. On Monday, Markstrom suffered some “lower body tightness,” and DiPietro was suddenly thrust into NHL action.
Except, if you follow along with all of that, it wasn’t sudden at all. Benning and the Canucks have known about Bachman’s injury for nearly two months. They’ve had over a month since the claim of McKenna to address their goaltending depth. They’ve had a week since Demko got injured to find a short-term solution.
The Canucks didn’t need to spend assets to find someone else: they have Ivan Kulbakov on an AHL contract and Michael Leighton on a PTO in Utica, and could have signed either one to a one-year NHL deal. Kari Lehtonen is still a free agent: surely they could have given his agent a call. They could even dig into the ECHL: Michael Houser leads the ECHL in save percentage and doesn’t have an NHL deal. Why not?
It never should have come to this — a 19-year-old raw rookie getting lit up by the most potent offence in the Western Conference — but it did, and the Canucks’ management needs to take a long, hard look at why.
I watched this game.
- According to Green, Jacob Markstrom was available, but he “didn’t feel comfortable putting him in.” In other words, Green didn’t want Markstrom trying to play through an injury and possibly making it worse, particularly when Markstrom is such an important part of the team. As Green put it, “I didn’t have another option.”
- There was always a chance, if a small one, that DiPietro would rise to the occasion and play his lights out; instead, he got lit up. There was also a chance that the Canucks’ defence would step up their game for the 19-year-old in his first start; instead, they shot themselves in the foot, then shot DiPietro in the foot, then stomped on his foot with their shot-up feet for good measure.
- Honestly, I was optimistic about DiPietro getting his first start, even if it was against the San Jose Sharks behind a defence missing Alex Edler. That optimism vanished when Erik Gudbranson kicked a puck out of a battle behind the net onto the stick of Logan Couture and Tyler Motte lost track of Timo Meier in front of the net. Couture centred for Meier, who beat DiPietro with the first shot of the game.
- It got worse: Evander Kane kept a puck in at the point and lofted it towards the goal. Ben Hutton made the poor decision to jump up and swat the puck out of the air. Instead of a Maxim Mikhaylov spike out of danger, Hutton deflected the puck up over DiPietro’s head and into the net for an own goal.
The best way to let DiPietro know what it's like to be a Canuck is to give him a healthy dose of self inflicted wounds, as is our tradition. pic.twitter.com/qHG8ZUbIZM— Wyatt Arndt (@TheStanchion) February 12, 2019
- Not long after, it was 3-0, as Melker “The Lesser” Karlsson tipped a Brent Burns point shot down under DiPietro’s glove, as he collapsed his glove to his protector to swallow a rebound before the puck was even there. That was three goals on five shots.
- Speaking of shots, the Canucks didn’t get any, at least not until over 12 minutes into the game, when Markus Granlund was credited with a bad angle shot that looked like it actually hit the side of the net. Getting out-shot 8-0 in the first ten minutes was likely not part of the gameplan to insulate their young goaltender.
- Hey Evander Kane: don’t throw a bunch of wild, gloved punches at Troy Stecher. What the heck?
You roll up on Troy From Richmond, you best know his boy Hutton has his back pic.twitter.com/OlFzxsDIcX— Wyatt Arndt (@TheStanchion) February 12, 2019
- The Canucks did get one goal back before the end of the first period, because, like Shaft, Elias Pettersson is one bad mother — shut your mouth — and made a goal happen. Pettersson gained the zone, took a briefest glance at Bo Horvat, then looked pointedly everywhere else before whipping the puck cross-ice to Horvat at the back door for the open net. That might be the best pass of his young career.
- The best part of that goal is Brent Burns’ desperate stab in hopes of breaking up the pass he thinks Pettersson is going to make down to Boeser. Nope.
- Things didn’t get any better for DiPietro in the second period, because OHL forwards don’t shoot the puck like Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl. Derrick Pouliot gave Kane a little too much room on the rush and he ripped a shot high glove on DiPietro. Then Hertl got in behind Horvat, took a pass from Joonas Donskoi, and whipped the puck up under the bar.
- Joe Thornton passed Gordie Howe for 9th all-time in assists on the 6-1 goal, partly because Erik Gudbranson seemingly forgot that Thornton was tied for 9th all-time in assists. Thornton moved in 2-on-1 and, because it’s Joe Thornton, looked pass the whole way. That didn’t stop Gudbranson from cheating towards Thornton like he was expecting the shot, and sliding down with only his stick in the passing lane. Thornton put the saucer pass neatly over Gudbranson’s stick to set up Kevin Labanc for the goal.
Me: "I wonder when Guddy will dive- oh there it is." pic.twitter.com/tnB59XAgWr— Wyatt Arndt (@TheStanchion) February 12, 2019
- There were a few positives amidst the wreckage, even for DiPietro himself, who prevented Kane from getting a hat trick with a marvelous save in the third period. Karlsson moved in 2-on-1 shorthanded and got the pass across to Kane, but DiPietro lunged to his right and came up with the blocker save.
- Another positive was the play of Zack MacEwen, who also made his NHL debut. He had a strong shift in the third period with Horvat and Nikolay Goldobin, nearly scoring his first goal on a nice move to the forehand in front. Goldobin got to the rebound and dropped it to MacEwen, who chipped it to Pouliot in the slot. Pouliot fired it home to give MacEwen his first career assist in the NHL.
- MacEwen played under 10 minutes, which seemed odd in a game that was out of reach halfway through the second period. It seemed like a good opportunity to get a better look at what MacEwen could do. He did play a bit more in the third, but only just. Perhaps Green will give him a little more rope in his next game, now that he’s at least proven that he deserves a second game.
DiPietro will be fine. From my interactions with him, he seems to have the right personality to not let this experience shake his confidence. Instead, he’ll use it as fuel to get better and as a learning experience. For example, he can learn that even when a shot is going well wide, you need to track it and get in position for a possible deflection: otherwise, Joe Pavelski will tip the puck right past you and score the Sharks’ seventh goal. As Alanis Morrissette once said, “I recommend walking around naked in your living room.” And also, “You lose, you learn.”