But with starting goalie Jacob Markstrom heading across the Rockies on Friday to the Calgary Flames, the Canucks snatched Holtby from free agency by signing the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winner to a two-year contract to partner and mentor Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko.
Markstrom leaving and Demko staying may have cost the Canucks star defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, as trade talks with the Arizona Coyotes ended with Vancouver general manager Jim Benning refusing to include Demko in a deal.
Knowing Markstrom was likely leaving for more term and a no-movement clause, Benning had to keep Demko.
Landing a goaltender as accomplished as Holtby for $8.6 million over two years softened the blow of losing Markstrom and saved Benning some money he should use to strengthen the Canucks’ defence.
The GM said Friday that he hoped free-agent defenceman Chris Tanev might re-sign with the Canucks as soon as Saturday morning.
But Benning had also said for months his top priority was to re-sign his No. 1 goalie. Seeing Markstrom, who under Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark grew into a top-10 starter in the National Hockey League, move to the team’s arch-rivals was still disappointing.
“I joked with Ian this morning, ‘You’re doing too good a job with our goalies,’” Benning told reporters. “‘You’re getting them to the point where we can’t afford to keep them anymore.’ He laughed. But we’re happy for Jacob.
“Getting Braden Holtby, first of all, he’s just a great person. He’s a total team player. He’s looking forward to working with Ian. He’s excited to come to Vancouver and join our organization, excited about our young players and our team. So we think it’s going to be a good fit.”
Friday would have been much worse for the Canucks were it not for Holtby. One of the first things he did after signing was ask for Demko’s phone number so he could introduce himself to the 24-year-old who just finished his rookie season and has been groomed as a future starter since the Canucks selected him in 2014 during Benning’s first NHL Draft with Vancouver.
“I had two things we were looking for as a family: a great place to live and a great chance to win, and (Vancouver) crossed off both boxes,” Holtby told Sportsnet. “I believe this team has a real chance to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s all I’m looking for.”
The 31-year-old from Lloydminster, Sask., was the Capitals’ clear No. 1 the last eight seasons. He won a Stanley Cup in 2018 and the Vezina in 2016, but this past season was easily Holtby’s poorest in the NHL. His save percentage plummeted to .897 from his career average of .916.
That’s partly why he was a relative bargain on Friday, accepting a two-year deal to play closer to home with a Canadian team that just made the playoffs for the first time in five years but went to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals.
“This year has been tough kind of knowing all along it was probably the end (in Washington),” Holtby said. “It was not easy; you make a lot of really good relationships. Mitch Korn, our old goalie coach in Washington, always said: ‘This is not a game of pucks, it’s a game of people.’ You really know that’s true when you’re in a situation like that. That’s the way life is (but) I’m excited to make even more of those friendships along the way.
“You try to know your strengths. I think that’s one of the most important things of having success, knowing yourself. I believe in hard work and competitiveness. From an outsider looking in, I think it’s going to be a great fit. I’m really excited to get after it.”
Holtby accepts that after a decade as ‘the guy’ in the Capitals’ organization, he may be sharing the net in Vancouver. With another condensed NHL schedule next season, Holtby said teams will need two goalies who can win.
New faces in new places. Which new goalie tandem do you think is better? pic.twitter.com/4GQ4HQQrcl
He added that working with Demko, under Clark, will put some “young blood” back into him.
“You can only be viewed as a leader if you actually lead,” Holtby, whose belief in social justice prevented him from visiting Donald Trump in the White House after the Capitals’ championship, said when asked about his role on the Canucks. “I think the older you get and the more you play, that experience can help you if you use it in the right way. And it can help others and help teammates and the team in general. My goal is to use that.
“The past… is not much to dwell on. It’s more about focusing on the moment.”
Benning must stay in the moment, too.
The Canucks’ other two unrestricted free agents, Tanev and winger Tyler Toffoli, are still on the market. Benning circled back to Tanev on Friday after ending trade talks on Ekman-Larsson.
“You’d have to ask them on their side if we were close or not,” Benning said of the Coyotes. “We negotiated through the week to see if we could figure something out. We gave them our last offer this morning. They didn’t think it was acceptable, so I just said: ‘Ok, we’re going to move on, we’ve got other business to tend to.’ And that’s what we did.”
Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong reportedly wanted Demko to be included in any deal for Ekman-Larsson. Benning never considered it. Another sticking point was how much “bad money” the Coyotes were willing to absorb in return for the Canucks taking on the final seven years of Ekman-Larsson’s $66-million contract.
The 29-year-old would have become a huge piece of the Canucks’ defence. Benning now has to fill gaps with a couple of smaller ones.
“We’re looking at everything,” Benning said. “We’re looking at trades. If there’s players, free agents, still out there that make sense, we’ll look at that. We’re keeping all of our options open.”
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