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Why Canucks’ quiet deadline might still have major playoff implications

FILE - Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom (25) stops a shot on the goal as New York Rangers' Chris Kreider (20) watches during the second period of an NHL hockey game Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

MONTREAL – If the Carolina Hurricanes can beat the Toronto Maple Leafs with a Zamboni driver in net, surely the Vancouver Canucks can win National Hockey League games with excellent rookie goalie Thatcher Demko.

But on trade-deadline Monday, when most of their Pacific Division rivals got better, the Canucks got worse with news that Jacob Markstrom is out indefinitely due to a knee injury.

The starting goalie, who had been building a Vezina Trophy-calibre season for the Canucks, travels home to Vancouver on Tuesday for further assessment and the team expects to know later this week how long their most valuable player will be out.

This is why the relatively minor deal the Canucks made that trickled across the transaction wire as Monday’s deadline passed has major implications on Vancouver’s drive to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2015.

Louis Domingue, acquired in a swap of third-string goalies with the New Jersey Devils, is a Demko injury or illness away from starting for the Canucks during their most critical stretch in nearly five years.

“Other teams have top guys that are out, too,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said in a news conference in Vancouver three hours after the team practised in Montreal for Tuesday’s game against the Canadiens.

“That’s just part of the game, part of playing this time of year. We’re confident in the depth that we have at different positions to replace players, and this will be a great opportunity for Thatcher.

“In this business, you wake up every day and there’s something you’re going to have to try to figure out.”

A slow news day for the Canucks blew up with The Province newspaper report that Markstrom was injured and not simply on a “maintenance” day as coach Travis Green told reporters in Montreal.

Benning confirmed that the 30-year-old hurt his knee during Saturday’s 9-3 blowout of the Boston Bruins, but the goalie felt well enough on Sunday to travel with teammates for the Canucks’ four-game road trip. An MRI on Markstrom’s knee in Montreal revealed damage to the joint and led to a radio report that he will be out three-to-four weeks.

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Markstrom is having a career year for the Canucks, going 23-16-4 while stopping 91.8 per cent of shots. Vancouver is a surprising third in the Pacific Division, two points ahead of the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes and just three points clear of the playoff cut line.

But the Flames and two teams ahead of the Canucks, the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers, all made trades Monday to strengthen themselves.

Benning’s big deadline move was last week when he acquired goal-scoring winger Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings to replace injured first-liner Brock Boeser.

“I’m happy with the group,” Benning reiterated Monday. “I like the way our guys have played all year, how they’ve overcome some adversity through the year, how they play hard for each other. I didn’t want to change the chemistry of our group that much. Going into it, we were selective. There was deals we could have made, that we talked about with our group, but we liked the players already playing here or the players that we can call up (from the minors) instead of reaching from the outside.

“Each team tries to address whatever needs they think makes their team better. With us, when we lost Brock … we went and got Toffoli. What other teams did doesn’t concern us; we need to take care of our own business.”

Domingue, 27, looked like a future starter when he broke into the NHL with the Arizona Coyotes in 2015-16. But the Canucks are now his fourth NHL team in two years, and Domingue had a fairly ghastly .882 save percentage in 16 appearances this season for the Devils, who traded him for minor-league goalie Zane McIntyre. Domingue has logged 138 NHL games.

Benning said Domingue would travel to Montreal to back up Demko, the 24-year-old who is 10-6-2 for the Canucks during his first full season and has posted a .905 save rate.

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“We just felt he was a player with experience that can come in and help support Thatcher,” Benning said. “He can play games for us and be competitive if we need him.”

While Markstrom left, defenceman Troy Stecher stayed.

Despite a torrent of trade conjecture regarding the local boy, the Canucks kept the defenceman who is sixth in ice time among Vancouver blue-liners and may not receive a qualifying offer in June on his expiring salary of $2.3 million.

“There were teams that called me on Troy Stecher,” Benning said. “I never brought up his name like we were trying to move him. I like Troy Stecher. He’s a competitive kid, he’s a Vancouver kid, he shows up and he competes hard every night. He’s part of our group of six guys and I was never really looking to shop him or move him.”

Stecher, 25, desperately wanted to the stay with the Canucks, whom he chose to sign with four years ago as an undrafted free agent out of the University of North Dakota.

“I’m a lifelong Canucks fan and they have no Stanley Cup,” Stecher said after practising. “I think it would be really cool to bring a Stanley Cup back to Vancouver. That’s part of my bucket list as a hockey player. I’d love to be part of the group to do that in Vancouver.”

The Stecher story was overshadowed by the Markstrom one later in the day. But one story that probably didn’t get enough attention was Benning’s unwillingness to spend available cap space because the team is not only hoping but planning for Boeser to return from his rib-cartilage fracture before the end of the regular season.

Benning said a week ago that Boeser was out for the “season,” but the team now expects him to return a week or two before the playoffs.

If the Canucks are really lucky, Markstrom will be back before then.