Thatcher Demko has made headlines before playing a single NHL game like few Canucks prospects before him. That’s what happens when you start breaking Cory Schneider’s records with eye-popping numbers in the NCAA.
Demko’s numbers improved every year with Boston College since the Canucks took him with the 36th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Last year he finished with a record of 27-8-4 and a .935 save percentage.
But the AHL is a different beast, particularly for goaltenders.
Many great goalies before him have had trouble adjusting to the pro game at first. Schneider, for instance, needed three seasons in the AHL before playing his first full NHL season. He’s now one of the best goaltenders in the league.
Demko not only has to adjust to playing against pros, but he’s having to do it on talent-poor Utica Comets team.
“I definitely felt some growing pains at the beginning of the year,” Demko told Daily Hive on the phone from Utica after practice on Thursday. “We had a little bit of a rough start as a team and I felt I wasn’t playing my best.”
Indeed. Utica started this season 2-8-1. Demko started four games in that stretch, losing all of them with a .847 save percentage. It was a rude awakening for the 2015-16 Hockey East Player of the Year, who is not used to losing games.
Comets head coach Travis Green alternated Demko and veteran goalie Richard Bachman for the first eight games of the season, before sitting Demko down for three in a row. In Demko’s next start, he stopped 29 of 31 shots en route to a 3-2 overtime win over Hartford, the first win of his professional career.
And that ladies and gentlemen, is how you win your first pro game in STYLE!
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) November 13, 2016
“I was so relieved. You try not to think about that first one too much, but when it finally came around I felt like ‘now I’m able to just play’. I definitely feel like I’m playing a lot more naturally now.”
Now playing what he describes as a “thoughtless game,” Demko rattled off four wins in a row, stopping 117 of 126 shots for a .929 save percentage. He describes the biggest difference from the NCAA to the AHL as the low margin of error. Attention to detail and higher focus have become of increased importance.
Did the brief layoff help the San Diego native refocus?
“To be honest, when I did get that start after [Bachman] had played the three games – I’m a competitive guy – and I just kind of made up my mind that I wasn’t losing anymore. I was pretty sick of it to be honest.”
Demko did go over film with goaltending coach Rollie Melanson during that time, to which he credits for helping him start racking up some wins.
“He’s got a good balance between tweaking some stuff and just letting me play,” he said of Melanson’s technique.
Melanson also made some adjustments to Demko’s style of play prior to the season, getting him to play deeper in the net, something the goalie coach has done with other Canucks goaltenders in the past.
“We worked on my depth quite a bit in the crease and making sure that I’m not attacking the shooter too much, just letting the play come to me instead of going at it. He just works with me on those details. It’s a small adjustment that you might not be able to see from the stands, but in the moment of the game it makes a huge difference.”
Away from the rink Bachman, a veteran of eight AHL seasons, has taken his goaltending partner under his wing.
“It’s better than I could have ever imagined,” Demko explained. “He’s a great guy, great teammate. We’ve been able to become pretty good friends. Especially when we weren’t doing too hot, he’d sit down and reflect on those games with me. Just kind of telling me what he sees – he’s a veteran guy, he’s been through it all – it’s been awesome to have him and be able to bounce some ideas off him and get some feedback from him.”
Demko likely also bounces ideas off of defenceman Jordan Subban, his roommate on the road, and in Utica.
“We got a nice little shack here,” Demko said proudly.
Demko is destined to be an NHL goaltender one day, but he isn’t getting ahead of himself, despite the fact that there could be an open spot behind Jacob Markstrom next season.
“I know that it takes time. I need to develop.”
So far Demko has developed a 4-4-1 record with a .900 save percentage, but he’s trending upwards. With Bachman now sidelined for about a month with a groin injury, he could be relied upon a little bit more than usual.
Demko will get his next test in at least one of the next two games, both against Albany, on Friday and Saturday.