As the Canucks begin down the path of a full-on youth movement, the player that could potentially make the largest impact on the ice is still not officially signed by the organization. That got me thinking: are the Canucks planning to add Thatcher Demko to the fold sooner rather than later?
The Canucks goaltending prospect has been tearing up the NCAA this season, with two separate three-game shutout streaks while leading Boston College to one of the best defensive seasons in their history. Currently sporting a 15-4-3 record with 1.71 GAA, 0.936 SV% and 7 shutouts, Demko has improved every season since being drafted by the Canucks in the second-round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. The Calgary Flames took goaltender Mason MacDonald two picks before the Canucks were able to snag Demko, and at this moment, it looks like the Canucks were able to steal the better goaltending prospect.
Watching Demko this season, it becomes immediately clear how much he was limited by a nagging hip injury which was finally corrected by surgery last off-season. His range of motion and recovery is now on par with his technical abilities. He is also one of the 66 finalists for fan voting for the Hobey Baker award.
Demko is in the middle of his junior season in the NCAA, and obviously still has one more year left to play in the NCAA. This leaves his senior year looming, although, I remain skeptical that the Canucks will let it get to that point. In fact, I think it highly possible that Demko could go professional next season, instead.
Veteran help in Utica: Richard Bachman
Last summer the Canucks signed unrestricted free agent Richard Bachman to a two-year contract with a very high AHL salary to be the starting goaltender in Utica and the ‘#3’ goalie behind Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom. Vancouver also signed Joe Cannata to a one-year contract. This prompted a “huh” moment, as generally teams will only sign their journeymen depth goaltender to a one-year contract; if they do well, they’ll often be re-signed to another one-year deal. Unfortunate circumstances for that player, but in the grand scope for the organization, it’s the prudent way to have flexibility. It got me thinking, what is the plan for that second season? Immediately reminded of the path that the Canucks last prodigal son took, with Cory Schneider.
After dominating at Boston College in his junior year (notice the similarity), Schneider was signed to an entry-level contract and then started his pro career behind journeyman Drew Macintyre. Schneider then played in 36 games during the 2007-08 season, with Macintyre handling the majority of the ‘heavy lifting’. The following year, Schneider started 40 games for the Manitoba Moose and then got his first taste of NHL action, appearing in 8 games throughout the season. He struggled in his first taste of NHL action that season putting up an 0.877 SV%. But he was absolutely dynamite in the AHL playoffs. He returned to Manitoba for the 2009-10 season and was the bonafide starter appearing in 60 games and posted a very respectable .919 SV% and 2.51 GAA.
The parallel between Schneider’s development and Demko’s likely path is clear. If the Canucks are wanting to add Demko to the fold this summer, they want to have a veteran presence in Utica to help Demko with the transition. Just like Macintyre for Schneider, Bachman will be able to handle the majority of the workload in Utica next season, while Demko can come in and feel comfortable. He will be able to practice more, and work with the Canucks and Comets goaltending staff to improve on any flaws or intricacies that he may have but not be required to handle the full weight of pressure that comes with being a starting professional goalie.
GM Jim Benning has also said multiple times when speaking about the current Canucks roster, that having veterans there to show ‘the way’ for the young kids is paramount. This same logic would apply to their prospects in Utica and has been shown with the Canucks signing veteran players to help fill out the Comets roster. Thus, it’s safe to assume that they would want one the top goaltending prospects in the hockey world to have the same veteran mentorship. Although Bachman has struggled mightily this year, he will still be able to provide the safety net and leadership for Demko.
Obviously, I do not know for sure if this was the plan when signing Bachman to a two-year term, but it is so clearly laid out that the Canucks were hoping that they would get Demko signed this summer by taking this step a full year in advance.
Current goaltending situation in Vancouver
Much like Bachman, the Canucks have Miller and Markstrom locked in for this season and the one that follows. Based on the play of both, it’s safe to assume that they will be back next season with Markstrom likely to take on a larger share of the workload. This again would bode well for Demko’s professional career as it would allow for the goaltender in question to get starters reps in Utica at any point when his mentors go down with injury.
It’s the 2017-18 season where things get interesting, as all three of Miller, Markstrom and Bachman will be UFA at the end of the 2016-17 season. Based on his age, play and the Canucks willingness to trade Eddie Lack, it would be a fair belief that Markstrom will be the starting goalie or, at least, 1A with another veteran. That could be Miller, or could be another veteran. That is likely the year that Demko will start the move to be the main guy in the AHL, and then become the first reinforcement from the farm. Assuming a relatively constant trajectory for Demko, one could assume that this paves the way for his succession to the backups throne the following season.
The closer one looks, the clearer it seems that the Canucks are embarking down a road to an eventual Markstrom and Demko tandem. A veteran presence is provided in the AHL to help Demko transition to professional hockey, before Demko takes the reigns in the minors and ideally gets the odd call-up to the big leagues.
Age of Current Team
Last week, I wrote about the Canucks apparent youth movement. Demko would definitely be an extension of this vision. The 2018-19 season is where the Canucks roster will really come together. The Sedin’s will be done their current deal, and hopefully move on to a more team friendly deal that paves the way for the next generation. Add that Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk will be 24 by the start of the season and suddenly the Canucks have a core of mid-twenty players looking to take the next step. That is even excluding 2015 1st round pick Brock Boeser, who would be entering his senior year at the University of North Dakota for the 2018-19 season. Ben Hutton will be 25 by then as well.
A lot can happen between now and then, but that’s likely the forward group that are expected to make up the core of the future Canucks. I didn’t even mention some of the other wildcard prospects that are already in the system like Cole Cassels, Alexandre Grenier, Jordan Subban and Carl Neill (just to name a few). Demko would be 23 to start the season and would fit perfectly within the age group of this team. He has also known the majority of these players through his development with the Canucks.
Pulling a Justin Schultz?
First off, I don’t think this will happen with Demko as he has shown through paying his own way to multiple Prospect Development Camps since being drafted. But in the NHL, an NCAA player exercising the rule within the CBA to become a UFA after his senior year is a very real concern. This ‘loophole’ has been used by players like Justin Schultz, Kevin Hayes and Blake Wheeler to become a UFA and select their destination.
Given that it is a possibility for any player, and that the Canucks used a high pick to select Demko, it is something they have to be cognizant of. There are some provisions in the CBA to protect teams who use first round picks on players, that if they go unsigned, the team would then receive a second-round pick in the following draft. Since the Canucks selected Demko in the second round, there would be no compensation surrendered and the Canucks would essentially lose one of their top prospects for nothing. Former Canucksarmy writer Josh Weissbock broke down how it can be difficult to get NCAA prospects to leave college early. Although that breakdown relates to forwards specifically, it can be applied to all players.
There is a lot of confusion about the rule, as Demko had already concluded his first year of NCAA hockey prior to being drafted by the Canucks. Lighthouse Hockey did a great job of breaking down and clarifying the rules here. So given that information,next summer, Demko would be done his 4 year collegiate career, he could become a UFA as of August 15th, 2017.
Once again, given Thatcher’s previous willingness to be a part of the organization, I don’t think this will happen with Demko, but it has to be something that Canucks management is aware of, and can be avoided by signing him this summer. Better to avoid it all together and get him signed this year.
This thought process and speculation may seem premature as it’s only January but it is something that the Canucks and their fans should have on their mind. The Canucks look like they snagged a gem of a prospect in Demko with the 36th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
Obviously, plans are just that, plans. But the best organizations will have a plan and then deal with deviations accordingly. The reasons listed above are clear indicators to me, that the Canucks are planning on doing everything they can to get Demko signed this season.