Years down the road, when we’re looking back on the 2014 NHL entry draft with the benefit of hindsight, the story of Thatcher Demko may not be so much the story of Demko himself, but of goalies and their unique relationship with the draft.
Indeed, all-star netminders have been selected in the first few picks of the draft, but for every Carey Price (5th overall, 2005), there is a Brian Finley (6th overall, 1999). For every Cory Schneider (26th overall, 2004), there are multiple Leland Irvings (26th overall, 2006). For every Jonathan Bernier (11th overall, 2006), there is a Brent Krahn (9th overall, 2000), and so on and so forth.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I assume you’re acquainted with our good friend Sham Sharron. If not, now is a fantastic time to get to know him if you’ve got an hour or six to kill. One of Sham’s cardinal rules for drafting prospects was to avoid goalies at all costs since they’re voodoo and, much like Sham’s namesake, can’t be trusted.
But why can’t we trust goalies? Why should we avoid them? I’m glad you asked.
I first touched on the relative risk of drafting goaltenders when I looked at Zachary Fucale’s relative chances of making the NHL compared to a pair of WHL goalies in Eric Comrie and Tristan Jarry. The basic conclusion from that study was that elite CHL performers had about a ~20% chance of making the NHL in any sort of capacity, while guys who are just above average made the NHL roughly 6% of the time.
Neither number is particularly encouraging, but Thatcher Demko doesn’t play in the CHL, so the most relevant point in that article was one made near the end: there is no good discernible relationship between the scouts opinions on a given goalie, and how that goalie will turn out.
I’ve mentioned before that just 20% of NHL Central Scouting’s annual top-3 draft eligible goalies from both North America and Europe between 2001 and 2010 made the NHL in a significant role, and this sort of collaborates with that stat:
The following two graphs are courtesy of Matt Pfeffer, who works as a scout/analyst for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. They measure Goals Versus Threshold (GVT), which is essentially a hockey equivalent of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), against the draft position of a player. The first graph for skaters is essentially what you’d expect: the best players are taken early, then the value of skaters falls off considerably after the first few selections. By contrast, goalies are all over the map. There’s no real relationship between what their value turns out to be and what scouts think of them:
Note: the scale of the y axis is different on each graph. The skaters graph goes from 0 to around 6000, while the goalies graph tops out at a little under 500.
This isn’t a fantastic way of comparing the relative risks of drafting a goalie with an early pick compared to a skater, so I decided to approach this problem from a little different of an angle. Derek Zona introduced the concept of “Impact Player Percentage” here, and I’ve used it before to look at the risks of drafting defensive defensemen. We can do the same thing with goalies too.
I decided to take each goalie that was drafted in the top 50 picks of each NHL entry draft since 1998 and count how many were an “impact goalie” – a top-30 NHL goalie between their draft+3 year and the present – and compare the impact percentage of drafted goalies in each bucket of draft picks to that of skaters taken in the same range of picks. Here’s how that turned out:
So at the end of the day, yes, goalie x drafted in the early portions of the NHL entry draft appears to carry more risk than a position player of a similar pedigree. But, there are two sides to every discussion. We’re not really interested in goalie x here, we’re interested in Thatcher Demko specifically, and there are many, many promising things to be said about him.
Thatcher Demko found himself in a bit of a unique situation last year. Everyone remembers that Demko went to the same college as Cory Schneider did, but what gets lost in the shuffle is that the Canucks didn’t actually draft Schneider out of Boston College or the NCAA – Schneider was drafted as a high schooler playing in the US National Development Program. Demko, however, fast-tracked through high school and landed an NCAA starting gig at just 17, which is nearly unprecedented. I spoke to expert on all things NCAA Chris Peters of CBS Sports, and here’s what he had to say about Demko:
“Considering Demko was actually supposed to be a senior in high school last year, I think it’s fairly safe to say he’s a rare case. He accelerated his schooling to make sure he could be at BC at 17, which takes a lot of commitment (including voluntary summer school, basically). I can’t recall a recent case that is quite like him.
With that in mind, what he did as a true freshman was pretty special. I think there’s a partial grain of salt to be taken with his numbers from last season, though. He had one of the best teams in the country in front of him, which is going to help a young guy like him. That said, there were a lot of occasions where he had to be sharp. He had 25 or more saves in 14 of his 24 starts last season. I think he’s an incredibly intriguing prospect due to his athleticism and the fact that he was able to step up and be the No. 1 goalie for one of the best teams in the country. He was the guy after the turn of the year. I do think that Demko’s draft standing was impacted by the fact that he was a pretty clear leader among what was, in my opinion, a rather weak goaltending class.”
The Cory Schneider comparisons will be unavoidable. Not only did the Demko and Schneider both attend Boston College, but Demko is the first legitimate young goalie prospect Vancouver has had since drafting Schneider a decade ago in 2004. I asked Chris if the Schneider comparisons would extend to Demko’s style of goaltending too, and Chris didn’t seem to think that this will be the case:
“The athleticism Demko shows really stands out to me. He has structure to his game thanks to some really great schooling. His goaltending coach is Mike Ayers, who was with him at the NTDP and was later hired as an assistant coach by Boston College. He is a really great mind on the position and was a top-flight college goalie himself. I don’t want to go comparing Demko to the American goalies because he doesn’t really remind me of Schneider or Quick. Like I said, he has the structure to his game, where he’s square on pucks and rarely off his angle, but that doesn’t take away from his athleticism and size. He takes up a lot of net and can get anywhere quickly. I think that’s a big factor for him.
What I think he’ll have to improve is more mental than physical. The skills are all there, but what I saw from him as a U18 goalie and particularly late this season for Boston College was where he gave up a goal early and just never quite recovered. That has made him prone to the odd “big game against” where he’s given up four or more goals. In those games his rebound control goes, his angles are off and he just doesn’t look comfortable. Every goalie is going to have those games from time to time, but I think Demko’s have come in situations where they just can’t happen. That is something that is fixable with more reps, more big situations and just general maturing.”
SBNation’s college hockey blog had Demko rated as the best NHL G prospect in the entire NCAA before the draft, ahead of guys like Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and Calgary’s Jon Gillies (as well as super high scoring teammate Johnny Gaudreau). They had the following to say about him:
“Watching Thatcher Demko play, many things jump out at you, but none of them would indicate he just turned 18. The true freshman showed up to BC a year early, and walked onto the Chestnut Hill campus as a 17-year old. While it took a little while for Demko to supplant himself as the Eagles starter, he’s now shined in that role, posting a 13-2-3 record with a .935 save percentage. What jumps out about Demko is a rare mix of size and athleticism. He’s also a pretty deft puck handler.”
Chances are, however, that if we do eventually get to see Demko in the NHL, it won’t be for another 6 or 7 seasons, as Peters explains:
“I think reasonable expectations for Demko is to expect him to play at least two more years in college, if not going to his senior year. I don’t think any NHL team will see him before age 24 or 25, but I do believe he has NHL starter potential if he meets his ceiling. I don’t think he’s a lock to make it as an NHL No. 1 at this point, but the potential exists for him to grow into that type of goaltender. More reps will be good for him in college for sure. BC is not going to have nearly the depth it did as a team last year, which means Demko is likely to see a heck of a lot more work next year. I think next year is going to tell us a lot more about his future than last year did. He is very likely going to be Team USA’s starter at the World Juniors this year and he’ll need to be exceptional for Boston College to maintain their position as an elite college team.
The few other things I’ll note about Demko is that I think he’s a very mature, professional young man. He carries himself well and prepares extremely well. He has definitely shown improvement from year to year to year, which I think says a lot about his potential. As I noted, next year is a huge year in his development. How he handles that is going to tell a lot more about where he’s headed next, so I think the NCAA season and World Juniors will be of great interest to Canucks fans.”
A whole lot can change in 6 or 7 years, but fortunately for Demko, it looks as if Vancouver has largely cleared the way for someone to claim the starting job around that time. Ryan Miller will be long gone, and Eddie Lack will be a ripe old 35. Jakob Markstrom, if he even sticks around beyond this season, will also be in his early 30’s.
Based on their investment and the landscape, it seems safe to say that Thatcher Demko will likely be afforded every opportunity to be Vancouver’s goalie of the future. He’s already doing things that few other goalies his age have been able to do, and if he keeps developing on this path, he’ll have as good a chance as anyone to be a legitimate NHL goalie.
Demko is, by virtue of his position, still quite a risky bet and by the numbers probably a longshot to become a future starter in the NHL, let alone a star goalie like Cory Schneider became. The numbers indicate that Demko has a less than a 10% chance of becoming at least a fringe starting goalie, but I don’t necessarily trust the numbers enough to say this is definitively accurate.
What’s important for the Canucks is that the pedigree is there, and the potential is there. Now it’s time to play the long waiting game.