Last time around, the Expansion Draft was a stress-free experience for the Vancouver Canucks and their fanbase. A select handful of true believers might have felt a bit of consternation at the prospect of losing former first rounder Brendan Gaunce, but even that didn’t happen – and most Canucks fans couldn’t believe their luck when Vegas walked away with Luca Sbisa.
The 2021 Expansion Draft is going to be a very different affair.
Like all young teams on the rise, the Canucks are destined to risk losing a valuable asset to Seattle – but as an organization with a pair of star goaltenders, Vancouver is in a particularly prickly position.
Most have already made peace with the fact that one of Jacob Markstrom or Thatcher Demko will have to depart either before or during the 2021 offseason. Even the stellar performances of each netminder in the 2019/20 season were viewed through the lens of Jim Benning and Co. having to decide which of them would be the team’s starting goalie moving forward.
But there might be a third option. Or, in the immortal words of that girl from the Old El Paso commercials, “¿Porque no los dos?”
As unlikely as it may seem, there is a possibility that the Canucks could keep both Markstrom and Demko through the 2021 Expansion Draft and into the 2021/22 season. (Of course, Vancouver fans are well aware that it’s also possible that BOTH leave town, but that would be a much less fun article.)
But at what cost?
At. What. Cost?!
Cost #1: The Cap Space
Before we even mention the Seattle TBAs, there’s a significant and immediate cost to keeping both Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko well into the future that needs to be discussed – the salary cap space it would require.
The merits and potential price-tag of re-signing Jacob Markstrom this offseason have already been debated and will continue to be ad nauseum, so let’s not rehash that here. Projections on this site have ranged from an average of $5 to $6 million on a four- or five-year deal, and yet another MVP campaign hasn’t done anything to lessen his bargaining power. Even the injury that ended his season could help him in negotiations – sure, it ended any hopes of a Vezina nomination, but it also reinforced how important he is to the team’s success.
Suffice it to say that any new contract for Markstrom will take up at least $5.5 million in cap space, and probably more.
Thatcher Demko’s next contract is much more difficult to predict, because he still has another year at $1.05 million before he signs it – and there’s no way of knowing how much term he’ll be looking for. It’s tough to imagine Demko committing to backup money for any significant length of time, especially with Markstrom still in the picture, but a new two-year deal in 2021 will bring him right to unrestricted free agency. The Canucks will likely aim to sign him for three or more years.
Whether it’s a two- or three-year extension for Demko, it will come with a pay bump. At this point, Demko already qualifies as a premium backup goaltender, and his potential as a future starter will have to be factored into his salary – but recent contract precedence makes a strong case for his cap hit staying under $2 million on a short-term deal.
David Rittich signed a two-year deal with a cap hit of $2.75 million last offseason at the age of 26, but he already had a season of starting duties under his belt by that point – something Demko won’t have in 2021 unless Markstrom departs or suffers a serious injury.
Pavel Francouz practically split starting duties with Philipp Grubauer in 2019/20 and put up a sparkling statline, and was just extended in February for two years at $2 million each – though he is also five years older than Demko.
In the summer of 2015 and at the age of 23, Juuse Saros signed on for a three-year apprenticeship under Pekka Rinne at just $1.5 million per season despite having the superior set of stats.
Previously, one would have to apply a little inflation to any projections of Demko’s next contract, but it’s now far from certain that the salary cap will increase at all before the 2021 offseason. As such, it seems fair to say that, for now, we can expect a Demko extension to take up approximately $2 million in cap space – maybe a little more, and maybe a little less.
Put that together with Markstrom’s minimum $5.5 million, and you’ve got a goaltending tandem signed at a cost of at least $7.5 million through the 2021/22 season.
Is that a problem?
Not really. Plenty of contending teams currently spend that much or more on their own goalie duos, and most of them have still managed to keep the rest of their stars under contract. The reigning champion Blues pay their tandem $8.75 million. Boston pays theirs a total of $9.75 million. Vegas ended the season with $8.4 million going to Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner.
A $7.5 million or more tandem of Markstrom and Demko would definitely be on the expensive side of the spectrum – and make it more difficult to sign Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes – but it would also be one of the best.
Cost #2: The Assets Paid To Seattle
Even if the Canucks get both Markstrom and Demko signed to new extensions, they’re still only able to protect one of them in the 2021 Expansion Draft – and the only way around it is to negotiate with Seattle.
The Vegas Expansion Draft provides some convenient precedence for what Seattle might demand in return for leaving Vancouver’s exposed goaltender alone, and taking a presumably less valuable asset instead.
Winnipeg traded down 11 spots in the first round and added a third-round pick to have Vegas take Chris Thorburn instead of Tobias Enstrom or Ben Chiarot.
Tampa Bay sent second and fourth round picks, along with the rights to Nikita Gusev, in exchange for Vegas taking Jason Garrison and not one of a bevy of intriguing forwards.
Anaheim sent the uber-talented Shea Theodore to have Vegas take Clayton Stoner and not Josh Manson or Sami Vatanen.
The Islanders dealt a first and second round pick and a prospect – as well as dumping Mikhail Grabovski’s contract – to convince Vegas to take Jean-Francois Berube instead of Jaroslav Halak, which might seem at first like a frightening precedent for the Canucks. But that inflated price also included protection for a slew of exposed skaters. including Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, Calvin de Haan, and Scott Mayfield.
Those are only a few of the examples, but they set the stage for Seattle demanding a hefty return in exchange for them keeping their hands off of Jacob Markstrom or Thatcher Demko. It looks as though the Canucks would have to part with a second round pick at the very least, and almost certainly more.
Don’t forget, the notion of stealing a popular and talented Vancouver goaltender to fill their net would be a dream come true for the Seattle franchise. The Canucks should be prepared to give up multiple draft picks and/or prospects if they want to make it worth Seattle’s while.
Cost #3: The Player Lost In The Expansion Draft
The Canucks will have to give up a boatload of cap space and some pretty significant future assets to keep both Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko past the 2021 Expansion Draft – but there’s yet another cost to consider. The Seattle TBAs will have to take someone from Vancouver, and if it’s not a goaltender, it will probably be a valuable skater.
Last week, we looked at the implications of re-signing Tyler Toffoli, and what other Vancouver forwards such an extension would leave unprotected. If Jim Benning and Co. pay up to keep both Markstrom and Demko, Seattle will still have the choice of assets like Zack MacEwen and Kole Lind – and maybe even someone like Adam Gaudette if more signings and re-signings occur.
On defense, the Canucks are in much better shape, as they don’t have to protect Quinn Hughes and Alex Edler becomes a UFA in the summer of 2021, but they still only have three slots to play with – which could leave someone like Olli Juolevi exposed.
Of course, the Canucks could always pay an additional price to have Seattle not select any of these players, either, much like the Islanders did in 2018. But that’s definitely going to cost further draft picks and prospects – and that’s tough from a franchise that isn’t exactly swimming in them.
Cost #4: Thatcher Demko’s Development
If there’s one last cost that needs to be considered before trying to keep both Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko beyond 2021, it’s the impact it will have on Demko’s development. At the age of 24, Demko is at the stage where he needs consistent NHL time to progress – and that won’t happen if he’s sharing the crease with Markstrom.
Surely, another season as backup isn’t going to hurt Demko that much, but what happens after that? Either Demko is ready to usurp Markstrom as starter as of 2021/22, or he’s not – and thus probably never will be.
And really, either outcome defeats the purpose of keeping both netminders in the first place.
At What Cost?
Keeping both Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko through the 2021 Expansion Draft would cost a lot – millions in cap space, a hefty package of future assets, and another player gone from the roster.
It’s also highly questionable whether it would even benefit the Canucks all that much in the 2021/22 season and beyond.
In other words, the cost is greater than its worth – and thus, this isn’t really a feasible option for the Canucks. It seems they will indeed have to make a choice between Markstrom and Demko in the near future – so here’s hoping the 2020/21 season starts on time so the decision-making can begin.