In part one of this series, I looked at a pair of depth defencemen who are on AHL deals with the Utica Comets.
Today I will focus on a couple of players who were roommates last season in Zack MacEwen and Thatcher Demko.
Today’s piece will focus on the talks that I had with Zack and Thatcher after they got off the ice on day one in Whistler.
I will start off with Demko, who looks like he could very well be the backbone of the Vancouver Canucks in net for years to come.
My first question to Demko was about what he worked on this offseason in order to get ready for the 2018/19 season.
“I was able to get in touch with Ian Clark, (Canucks Goalie Coach) in early July, which was awesome for me. He is a very detail-oriented coach and I’m a very detail oriented player, so we were really on the same page right away. He was able to give me some things that I could work on, just watching some video etc. I think the biggest thing is that I have a lot of the pieces that it takes to play in the NHL, now it’s just making sure that I can put them all together and use them as efficiently as possible to make sure that I am making the transition as smoothly as possible.”
I then brought up the fact that he got his first taste of playoff action as a pro last season and asked what he was able to take away from that experience.
“I think the biggest thing was just how much fun it was. It was my first taste of playoff hockey and it kind of gave me a taste of what you play for as a pro. Obviously being in college you are playing for a national championship and the post-season is structured in a much different way. Having that first series, where you play that team over and over and you create a small rivalry in a sense. The intensity of playoff hockey was a lot of fun to be a part of and it was a lot of fun to rise to that occasion. I thought I played well in that series, but obviously not well enough, in my opinion. That one stung for sure. We had a really good group of guys in Utica and we were all on board. I think if we had gotten past Toronto that we would have been able to do some damage. I just had a ton of fun playing with those guys in the playoffs last year and that definitely is something that pushes you and gives you some motivation heading into this year.”
Next up, I asked Thatcher what his biggest challenge was going from a first-year pro into his second year.
“I don’t think it’s much of a challenge, I think it’s just a growing process. I had struggled a little bit in my first year of pro and in that first half when Bachman had been called up, I was able to play a lot of games and learn a ton about playing every night and playing consistently. I was just trying to pick up where I left off in my first year and luckily I was able to do that. I thought I made some really big strides last year and I still think there’s a ton of stuff that I can improve on, you know, I’m never really satisfied. I think now that going from year-two to year-three that I will be able to take an even bigger stride and make a push to be up here as much as I can.”
I wanted to finish up my talk with Thatcher on a fun note, so I mentioned to him that I follow his father on Twitter, (@uggstown) and that I had noticed a few times since Thatcher signed that his father would tweet out a countdown of sorts, sending out a series of daily tweets that would be nothing more than a single number counting down from 10 and ending at one. It seemed like he would end up in Utica within a day of that final tweet. With a bit of a chuckle, Demko replied with…
“Yeah, so he started to do that a couple of years ago, back when I was in college. Obviously, I don’t get to see him much and it’s exciting anytime he can come into town, so he does a little countdown on Twitter. It’s actually funny, leading up to me signing out of college, I was making the decision to come back for another year or to sign and turn pro. I was actually going to get to see him, he was coming to Boston to help me with the decision and to hang out a little bit, so he started the countdown and the Canucks fans thought he was talking about me signing and it kind of turned into a little frenzy there. I told him he’s got to relax and pick his times a little bit better, but yeah, that’s just something that he likes to do on Twitter.”
Thatcher’s mention about his decision to turn pro lead me to ask him what that thought process was like.
“It was tough, I’m a big loyalty guy, especially to my teammates and my team in general. I kind of battled that feeling of leaving your teammates and your team behind to go to continue your career. At the end of the day, I sat down with the coaches and they all agreed that I was ready to make the transition. Obviously, if I did go back, it wouldn’t have hurt me, but I’m a guy who wants to challenge myself and to take steps as quickly as possible to get to the NHL and it just ended up being the right decision for me.”
Up next, I was able to speak with none other than The Big Fella, Zack MacEwen. I started things off by mentioning the large crew of rookies who could be playing in Utica this season compared to just him, Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield and Alex D’Aoust last year and asked for his thoughts on that.
“Yeah, there are a lot of draft picks and guys that are going to be coming in either here, (Vancouver) or Utica this year. We had a pretty solid group of rookies last year, we got to play some bigger minutes too, with some guys getting injured and others getting called up, so I think it helped all of us come into a bigger role early on in our pro careers and I think that was a big benefit for me.”
I then brought up special teams and how Zack was a staple on the power play in Utica, but that he hadn’t been used much on the penalty kill last season. He did see some PK time at Young Stars in Penticton this year, however, and I wanted to know if that was a responsibility that he saw himself taking on this season with the Comets.
“It’s something that I’m going to want to work on. They mentioned it to me at the end of the year last year when we were leaving Utica that it’s something to be aware of and that I might be getting put into that role as things move on. Before turning pro, I was always a penalty killer, and I know that it is definitely a different jump when you get to the pro level, but I’m going to do everything I can to work on that and if they want me in that role, I’m going to try to do my best at that.”
People who have read my work here, or who have heard me speak on the radio over the past year about MacEwen know that I have long been of the opinion that it might be worth taking a look at Zack back at his natural position in the middle. I wanted to find out what Zack’s thoughts were on that scenario and if there had been any talk about shifting him off of the wing.
“Not as of right now, and I’m okay with that. I’ve been a centre my whole life but I’ve played the wing too and just having the ability to take draws if centres get kicked out, I will always have that in my back pocket. I’m still working on faceoffs, still watching what the centremen do, keeping an eye on their aspects of the game. I pride myself on being versatile and being able to play different positions and if that’s where they want me sometime then it will happen, but if not I’m just going to keep going with where they want me.”
I then mentioned how much improvement I saw in his skating from the start of last season to the end and asked Zack what his biggest focus was in his offseason training this year and what types of things he worked on.
“My skating definitely took big steps forward last year during the season and I continued to work on that this summer. I really worked on my foot speed and agility. My overall conditioning was a big one too. I kind of came in last year maybe a step or two behind. I picked it up as the season went on and I felt comfortable and got better, but I came in this year really giving myself the best chance to show something. I’m happy with how my summer went and I’m feeling good coming into camp right now and everything is going well so I’m just going to keep it going.”
Finally, I wanted to finish Zack’s interview off on a fun note as well, so I asked him about his tilt with Jacob Cederholm at Young Stars in Penticton this year. Zack answered this question with a chuckle and a wide smile on his face.
“Yeah, it was good. It’s nice when they go like that and you can come out unscathed. It’s all part of the game. I kind of took exception, I had my back turned to him and he kind of hit me from behind.”
Much like Thatcher, Zack was accommodating and thoughtful with his answers, making the whole process much easier for me. I truly enjoyed my talks with both players and look forward to watching what they will do this season in Utica, as well as what they will do in Vancouver when called upon.
Stay tuned for part three of this series where I will be sharing my talks with defencemen Ashton Sautner and Guillaume Brisebois.