By Jason Botchford
Sept 19, 2016
PENTICTON — It never seems to take much to ignite a goalie controversy.
In Vancouver, even a week before training camp. Just name your highest-paid, most-experienced goalie the unquestioned starter and watch the city boil.
That’s what general manager Jim Benning did Monday, announcing Ryan Miller as the team’s No. 1. It was as surprising as it wasn’t.
From one angle, Miller is Benning’s guy, carefully plucked two years ago from the free-agent pool, and impressively well-compensated, to help the Canucks try to take a deep playoff run. It makes sense that the GM would lean toward making Miller his ride or die.
Also, Miller is experienced and proud, and is the type who would likely recoil at the mere mention of him backing someone up, even at 36 years old.
But, on the other side, is Jacob Markstrom. He is the obvious heir apparent. Not only is he 26 years old and seemingly ready for this, he has already looked great this month playing at the World Cup of Hockey.
Just last season he was in a 50-50 split. And, right now, he’s not.
“Miller is an experienced guy, he had a good year last year, he’s our No. 1 goalie,” Benning said. “He’s mentoring Jacob for at some point to take that position over.”
Pressed on what that means — can Miller play 60 or, heaven help us, 70 games? — Benning said: “I’m just saying going into the season, he’s our No. 1 goalie. I’ve been in other organizations where they’ve had good goalies and they’ve played 55 games. That will sort itself out. But going into the season, that’s the way we see it.”
Starting fifty-five games would be 67 per cent of the season and, theoretically, would leave Markstrom with 32, barring injury. Thirty-two games is what Markstrom played last year and that was in a season in which he didn’t play his first game until Nov. 10.
Any scenario where Markstrom doesn’t play at least 40-45 games is a risky one, and not just because it sure has seemed like Miller is much better when he’s not overworked. More importantly, however, is what this would mean for the end of the season. If there isn’t a pretty even split, would you really know whether Markstrom is capable of being the main guy, one who can effectively handle 60 games?
Because that’s what he’s going to need to do next year, unless the Canucks are planning on re-signing Miller or bringing in another prominent veteran.
Along with his plans for his goalies, Benning said the Canucks will carry eight defencemen this year, and opened the door to the possibility that someone in Penticton could earn their way on the team.
That’s not, however, likely to be Olli Juolevi, who played a good first game here before struggling in his second. Benning said it’s easier to put a young forward in than a young defenceman.
“They don’t have the defensive responsibilities defenceman and goalies have,” he said. “I think he (Juolevi) needs to get physically stronger, but he’s only an 18-year-old.”
Troy Stecher, who is 22 and was arguably the best Canucks defenceman here, is one candidate to get a serious look in training camp and beyond.
“We think, going forward, he’s going to get games with us this year,” Benning said.
Could he win a job?
“Yeah. That’s why we go through training camp,” Benning said. “With Ben Hutton last year, he just kept getting better and better every day through camp and through the exhibition games. Troy is going to be the same way.”
The Canucks seem pretty locked on a third pairing of Philip Larsen and Luca Sbisa, which would make Nikita Tryamkin the seventh defenceman.
The battle for that eighth spot would include Andrey Pedan, Alex Biega and you’d have to include Jordan Subban, who, offensively, had a promising rookie season in Utica. In Penticton, Subban was hit-and-miss. He had some good moments, like a great goal he scored Sunday. But he was also partly responsible for a giveaway that led to a breakaway goal against. It didn’t help that he took an unsportsmanlike penalty for beaking at the Calgary bench.
“For him, it’s defending at his size,” Benning said. “For a guy at his size, it’s angles, it’s stick position and it’s stick-on-stick. Those are all things if he’s going to play at the next level, he’s going to have to be real good at.”