Friday’s game between the Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers came just short of a storybook finish for Spencer Martin, as he came just short of recording his first-ever NHL win, five years to the day since his first NHL start.
Unfortunately, Martin won’t get the chance to write a sequel with a happier ending on Sunday as he’s the latest Canuck to enter the NHL’s COVID protocol. That puts the Canucks in a bind because their two goaltenders ahead of Martin on the depth chart are still unavailable to play.
The Canucks’ number one goaltender, Thatcher Demko, tested positive for COVID-19 on January 20 and is currently in the NHL’s COVID protocol until January 25 at the earliest. That means he could be back ahead of the Canucks' next game on Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers.
Backup Jaroslav Halak tested positive on January 19 and would technically be available to rejoin the Canucks’ roster now with a negative test. Unfortunately, he tested positive while in the U.S. and the rules for getting back into Canada after a positive test are more strict than the NHL’s protocol. He’s not expected to return to the Canucks until Thursday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.
That pressed Martin into service on Friday, with the Canucks’ top goaltending prospect, Mikey DiPietro backing him up. Martin was superb on Friday, stopping 33 of 34 shots against the highest-scoring team in the NHL, the Florida Panthers. He got the game to the shootout but couldn’t quite seal the win.
Now, with Martin out, DiPietro will start on Sunday against the St. Louis Blues — his first start since he was forced into action back in 2019 and got blown up by the San Jose Sharks.
DiPietro lost nearly a full year of development last season while sitting on the Canucks' taxi squad. That might be why he's struggled in the AHL for the Abbotsford Canucks this season, posting an .896 save percentage and losing starts to Martin. Still, the Canucks believe in his potential and he should still have an NHL future. For the moment, that future is now.
Making matters worse, the Canucks have no one to back up DiPietro on Sunday. Next on the depth chart is prospect Arturs Silovs, but he has also tested positive for COVID-19.
“I might be the backup tonight,” joked head coach Bruce Boudreau after Sunday's practice.
The Canucks have literally no other goaltenders under contract, though they technically still have two other goaltenders on their salary cap. Braden Holtby’s $500,000 buyout is on the cap for this year and will be $1.9 million next season. The Canucks also have the final year of Roberto Luongo’s ~$3 million cap recapture penalty on the books this season.
With no goaltenders under contract, the Canucks are turning to an EBUG — Emergency Back-Up Goaltender. The Abbotsford Canucks will be doing the same behind AHL goaltender Joe Murdaca.
Backing up DiPietro in Vancouver will be Rylan Toth of the UBC Thunderbirds, while Talor Joseph of the TWU Spartans will be the backup in Abbotsford.
Toth, a former goaltender for the Red Deer Rebels and Seattle Thunderbirds in the WHL, has been lights out for UBC this season, with an outstanding .935 save percentage, which is second in USports behind Rylan Parenteau of the University of New Brunswick, another WHL alumni.
Unlike many other EBUGs, such as zamboni driver David Ayres who famously backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the 25-year-old Toth has aspirations to play professional hockey in North America. He’s good enough that he might be able to do it.
Toth recently tied a Canada West record with a three-game shutout streak. On Saturday, his streak ended at a total of 227 minutes and 49 seconds without giving up a goal.
It’s unlikely that Toth will be called upon to actually play for the Canucks on Sunday but if that worst-case scenario occurs, at least he’s got game.
Boudreau confirmed that assistant coaches Scott Walker and Kyle Gustafson have also entered COVID protocol. Somehow, despite all of the goaltenders testing positive, goaltending coach Ian Clark has managed to evade the virus.