The Vancouver Canucks are fortunate enough to have two goaltenders among their list of top prospects; while the younger (and smaller) Mikey DiPietro clocks in at #7 on this pre-season’s list, the team has another goaltender in the pipeline that’s currently ranked even higher in Thatcher Demko.
Demko often gets lauded for his size and speed, a rare combination that gives him an undeniable advantage when he’s out of position or scrambling to adjust to a last-second shift in the play. He’s been catching the eyes of scouts and fans alike dating back to his NCAA days with Boston College, all thanks to his flashy saves — which are made all the more noticeable thanks to his already larger-than-life presence in the crease.
I last wrote about Demko in May of 2018, following an incredibly promising AHL campaign with the Utica Comets. Since then, he’s recovered from a nasty concussion, eased his way back into some regular playing time, and earned himself the chance to tandem this upcoming season with returning NHL starter Jacob Markström — all while keeping his numbers looking consistent and (arguably even more importantly) his development marching forward.
This year, the biggest question will revolve around Demko’s ability to show sustained consistency. He was given arguably the best opportunity to learn last year, getting a pair of NHL starts in January and February before getting a slew of games in March and April to close out the year. And although he had a pair of rough games, the majority of his appearances at the NHL level showed that any concerns with his ability to read and react to the game at the highest level should be put to rest.
Demko had long developed a reputation of being a ‘flashy’ and ‘reactive’ goaltender; he was great for a desperation save that smaller, less agile goaltenders would struggle to make, but sometimes moved a bit more than he needed to and put himself in a desperation position when a simple save would have done the trick. He relied on his size and speed to stop the puck, rather than conserving his energy and getting into position early; it worked at the lower levels of the game, but could have very quickly exposed him in the NHL if he’d been moved up through Vancouver’s depth chart too quickly.
It may have looked a bit painful to fans who were desperate for the arrival of their goaltending heir apparent to see Demko play his first full pro season at the AHL level, and then a concussion that sidelined him at the start of last year left his potential move up to the NHL even further delayed.
Clearly, though, the patience that the Canucks used with Demko was the right move. He put up quality starts in six of his nine NHL games last year, a pretty nice ratio for a kid without much in the way of NHL experience — and his only two poor outings came in a gnarly mulligan of a game against the Arizona Coyotes in February and a messy affair against the Columbus Blue Jackets in late March.
He’s learned to control his movements a bit and stay on top of plays, leaving his size advantage for only when he absolutely needs it. And although he’ll always be a bit more active than some goaltending pundits would prefer, he knows his style well and he’s comfortable in his own skin; if the biggest key to good goaltending is owning one’s own technique, it’s no surprise that he’s already putting up excellent numbers.
The key question for the upcoming season will be continued maturity as he takes on a heavier workload at the NHL level, as he’ll presumably share the crease for the full season with Markström and take on more than just nine NHL appearances before the regular season is through. The grind of the NHL can cause younger, inexperienced goaltenders to slip back into bad habits, and the faster rate of second shots and rebound attempts make it much harder to thrive on a purely reactionary game over the long term; if he starts to lose some of his newly-developed composure, it could cause a dip in his numbers.
That, of course, is only the worst case scenario, though. Ultimately, there’s very little to dislike about how Demko has developed during his last handful of seasons — and if he manages to keep his development consistent with added game loads, it’s hard not to consider him the starter of the future for Vancouver.