There’s a number of storylines going into the 2019-20 season for the Vancouver Canucks; an anniversary celebration, a rebuilt supporting cast, and a draft pick bet placed on the team’s ability to make the postseason within the next two years.
But one story flying under the radar heading into training camp in September surrounds the budding young goaltender in the Canucks’ net, Thatcher Demko.
After a stellar NCAA career with Boston College and two stints with Team USA at the World Juniors, Demko made the leap to the AHL in 2016-17. The Canucks’ second-round pick (36th overall) in 2014, Demko appeared in 91 regular season games in his first two pro seasons, posting a .922 save percentage to earn an AHL All-Star spot in his second year.
The 23-year-old San Diego native was expecting to play a much bigger role for the Canucks last season, but a preseason concussion and a knee sprain suffered before a game against the Flyers in February limited Demko to just nine NHL games in 2018-19. While it was enough to earn him a new two-year contract, it also puts Demko on track to face the first big crossroads of his pro hockey career.
With Jacob Markstrom coming off a year where he took home team MVP honours and Michael DiPietro debuting with Utica next season, Demko will need to show he has No. 1 goalie potential soon. Markstrom is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, so Demko’s ability to hold his own over the course of next season could have a major impact on what Jim Benning and Co. choose to do with the 29-year-old Swede.
The big picture
After Markstrom’s breakout season, Demko will probably find himself on the bench a fair amount next year, at least early on. But that could play to the young goalie’s advantage since he’ll get ample practice time with Canucks goalie coach Ian Clark, who worked wonders fine-tuning Markstrom’s game in 2018-19.
If all goes according to plan, Travis Green will likely try to give Demko between 20 and 30 starts in order to ease Markstrom’s workload, but also to get a real sense of the kid’s abilities. If recent history has taught us anything, most teams require a backup who can play over a third of an 82-game schedule.
In his eight starts with Vancouver last season, Demko put up a respectable 4-3-1 record with a .913 save percentage in front of a team that finished among the bottom of the league in high-danger scoring chances allowed.
If Demko’s able to prove he can handle the pressure of playing starting minutes in the NHL, there’s a small chance the Canucks decide to move on from Markstrom prior to the NHL trade deadline so they don’t lose him for nothing on July 1. But if Demko stumbles, Benning may have to consider a late-season extension to keep Markstrom around for another few seasons.
Also on the horizon is the 2021 Seattle expansion draft, for which Demko is eligible (DiPietro is not). The Canucks will be allowed to protect just one goaltender.
Demko’s chance to win his spot could be short, depending how quickly DiPietro develops. The former Windsor Spitfires star has his own extensive junior hockey resume, including a Memorial Cup championship in 2017.
Demko doesn’t have to steal the starter’s job away from Markstrom next season, but he needs to show improvement to continue to give management hope that he can be their No. 1 goalie in the near future.