After Jacob Markstrom posted a career-best 28-23-9 record with a .912 save percentage in 2018-19, it appears the Canucks finally have a reliable starting goaltender.
But how should the team handle promising 23-year-old backup Thatcher Demko in 2019-20?
Demko started eight games last season, posting a 4-3-0 record with a .913 save percentage and 2.81 GAA. He signed a two-year extension in April that carries an AAV of $1.05 million.
Demko made Canucks history in January last season, making 36 saves in a 4-3 win over the Sabres. The 6’4″ 192 lbs netminder became the first goalie in franchise history to win his first two career NHL games.
Demko is unproven at the NHL level, but he’s also only played 10 career NHL games. It’s clear the Canucks believe in Demko, their 36th overall selection in the 2014 draft, after trading away former backup Anders Nilsson to Ottawa last January. The Canucks also inked Demo to that two-year extension in April.
This season will be Demko’s chance to solidify his role as a full-time backup and a potential future starter in Vancouver. He had a fantastic career with the AHL Comets, becoming the team’s all-time leader in wins and earning AHL All-Star honours last year.
Problems will arise if Markstrom’s inconsistency troubles from his days in Florida resurface and the Canucks need Demko to really pick up the slack. That will be a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old on a team that made significant additions in the offseason and is expected to take a big step forward in 2019-20. Markstrom is a different goalie now, though, and you can tell from his poise and consistently solid play that he believes in himself and Vancouver believes in him.
Some players are born to thrive in pressure situations and Demko could very well excel even if Markstrom struggles or goes down with an injury. Take the 2019 Stanley Cup winning goalie as an example. 25-year-old Jordan Binnington hadn’t even started an NHL game in his career before being called up by the Blues in January, posting a 24-5-1 record in the regular season and leading the team to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
You sometimes just never really know what you have in a goalie until he gets in a healthy amount of games at the NHL level. But how many games should Demko play next season if Markstrom continues his strong play and everything goes according to plan in the Canucks crease?
NHL coaches are becoming more aware of the dangers of a heavy workload for their starting netminder. Out of all goalies among the top-10 in starts last season, only Martin Jones made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His .898 postseason postseason save percentage also indicates that it wasn’t exactly his spectacular play that got the Sharks far. The two goalies who played the most during the regular season didn’t even get in to the playoffs.
Tuukka Rask, the other goalie in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, saw his lightest regular-season workload (46 GP) since 2013 last season. The well-rested 32-year-old Finnish netminder posted a .934 save percentage in the playoffs and finished third in Conn Smythe voting. The Bruins were able to rest their starter at times during the regular season due to the solid play of their backup netminder, Jaroslav Halak. Halak made 40 appearances last season, posting a 22-11-4 record with a .922 save percentage. Having two good goalies helped Boston finish the regular season with the second-highest point total in the NHL.
The last time Vancouver made the postseason (2015), Ryan Miller played 45 games and Eddie Lack played the other 35. The year Roberto Luongo took the Canucks all the way to the Stanley Cup Final was the year he saw his second-lightest workload (60 starts) in eight seasons.
No goalie has won the Stanley Cup after playing more than 60 games in the regular season since Jonathan Quick played 69 with the Kings in 2012. Since 2009-10, the average number of regular-season games for Cup-winning goalies is 51.7. This includes the AHL games for Matt Murray (2016) and Binnington (2019) before their call-ups. It also converts Corey Crawford’s games played during the lockout shortened season to what they would have been in a full season.
2019: Jordan Binnington, 48 GP (AHL/ NHL)
2018: Braden Holtby, 54 GP
2017: Matt Murray, 49 GP
2016: Matt Murray, 44 GP (AHL/NHL)
2015: Corey Crawford, 57 GP
2014: Jonathan Quick, 49 GP
2013: Corey Crawford, 51 GP (pace over full season)
2012: Jonathan Quick, 69 GP
2011: Tim Thomas, 57 GP
2010: Antti Niemi, 39 GP
Another good recent example for a lesser workload paying dividends is the Capitals giving Braden Holtby 54 starts the year he won the Cup in 2018. He had played 66 and 63 GP in the two years prior and lost to the Penguins in the second round each time. If the Canucks truly hope to make their run at the Cup sometime in the next several years they will need to get to a point where they have two good goalies they can count on. The importance of a reliable backup goalie and a well-rested starting goalie can’t be overstated.
The Canucks obviously don’t have the same amount of talent as the Capitals did or other Cup contenders entering 2019-20, but they are on the cusp of being a playoff team. Markstrom has played 60 games in back-to-back seasons and appears set for another heavy workload. Based on the recent evidence, if Demko can eventually work his way up to the 30-game range, the Canucks should be in good hands.
Demko hasn’t seen too heavy of a workload in his career to date and there’s no reason to throw him into the fire if Markstrom continues to play well. Demko’s best season with Boston College came when he played 39 games and his best season in the AHL was a 46-game campaign (injury related).
The Canucks should take a wait-and-see type of approach for Demko in 2019-20. If he impresses in his early starts than they should continue to ease him into a heavier workload. The Canucks have 12 back-to-backs this season and are going on 13 different road trips. An early four-game road trip occuring Oct. 17th-22nd and a six-game road trip in November will likely be pivotal for the Canucks in assessing what they have in Demko.
The Canucks could get the Demko who closed out the year with 104 saves on 110 shots in three starts against the Kings, Sharks and Blues or the guy who gave up five goals on two separate occasions against Arizona and Columbus.
It’s a big year on the horizon for the Canucks, and Demko’s first season as a full-time backup will have a key impact on how it plays out.