What do the 2022 Vezina Trophy and the cast list for any given Frankenstein movie have in common?
They’re both pretty much guaranteed to have an “Igor” on them.
Yes, Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers has been the presumptive winner of the 2021/22 award for best goaltender for a few months now. And we’re not here to dispute that. Shesterkin’s season has certainly been worthy of the award, and he might even find his way into the Hart Trophy conversation as league MVP, too.
But in that all Igor-related praise, there hasn’t been nearly enough talk about who else might be worthy of a nomination, and that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
Specifically, we’re here to make the case that Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks could and should be one of the three nominees — even if we all know darn well he won’t actually win the thing.
Let’s take a look at the supporting evidence.
The Base Stats
Demko set new career standards across the board in 2021/22.
He played more games, won more games, had a higher save-percentage, and a lower goals-against-average than ever before.
A save percentage of .915 is good for a starting goaltender, and had Demko ranked in a tie for 13th overall leaguewide.
The GAA of 2.72 was less impressive, and rated only 20th leaguewide, but that’s far more of a team stat and cannot be blamed entirely on Demko’s performance. Even then, it’s solid.
These are fine stats, but they don’t exactly scream “Vezina candidate.” To get there, we’re going to have to do what Demko does on a nightly basis and dig deep.
Goals Saved Above Average/Expected
Fancy stats for goaltenders are not nearly as prevalent as those for skaters, but there are a few to choose from.
Let’s start with “goals saved above average.” It’s a fairly basic measure that takes the shots a goalie faces, applies the league-average save percentage to them, and then tallies how many extra goals were prevented by this goaltender compared to said league average.
For Demko in 2021/22, that number was 14.76, good enough for tenth in the league. That means the Canucks had at least 14 fewer goals scored on them by having Demko in net than they would have got from a statistically-average goalie.
Here, it’s important to remember that old George Carlin maxim about stupid people and averages: “Think of how bad the average NHL goalie is, and then realize half of them are worse than that.”
“Goals saved above expected” takes things a step further. It’s essentially the inverse of xG and xGA stats, in that it attempts to measure the difficulty and danger of any given shot, and then from there it does the same thing as GSAA by comparing any given goaltender’s results to what would be expected from a league-average goaltender. It’s also got a fun little acronym in “GSaX.”
Here, Demko actually slides down the rankings a little, just missing out on the top-ten. That still doesn’t put him anywhere near the Vezina conversation, but we’ve got a few more layers of context to add before all is said and done.
The key to understanding Demko’s excellence in 2021/22 is to examine his play at five-on-five. A goalie has the most direct control over their performance at even-strength, and that’s where Demko really starts to shine through.
Demko’s 5v5 save-percentage tied for the third-highest in the entire NHL, just a hair behind Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders.
The fancy stats, however, are even fancier.
Going back to GSAA, at 5v5 Demko ranks second in the league. The only goalie ahead of him? You guessed it: Shesterkin.
In terms of GSaX, Demko just misses out on second place by the thinnest of margins. He’s got more-or-less exactly the same results as Andrei Vasilevskiy and Jonathan Quick (who knew?), with Shesterkin again leading the pack by a fair bit.
So, when all things are even, Demko definitely has a claim to a top-three goaltending performance in 2021/22. What is it, then, that drags his overall numbers down?
A few things, actually.
Quality of Blueline
It’s hard to separate the impact of a blueline and its goaltender. Earlier this week, we analyzed the strength of the Canucks’ defenders in 2021/22 and found them to be a group that was heavily buoyed by Demko.
Now, let’s look at what the other Vezina-quality goaltenders had in front of them.
Shesterkin’s crease was protected by reigning Norris winner Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller, Ryan Lindgren, and the emergent Braden Schneider, among others.
Vasilevskiy played behind the Cup-winning collection of Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev, and Zach Bogosian.
Our old friend Jacob Markstrom is another goalie earning some Vezina buzz. His blueline consisted of the wonderful Chris Tanev, Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson, Oliver Kylington, Nikita Zadorov, and the more effective-than-ever Erik Gudbranson.
The same goes for Freddie Andersen in Carolina, Juuse Saros in Nashville, Darcy Kuemper in Colorado, or Sergei Bobrovsky in Florida. Any other netminder in the Vezina conversation had the benefit of a stronger blueline than Demko relied on in Vancouver.
Impact of Penalty Kill
If there were a singular factor that tanked Demko’s overall statline, it was undoubtedly the dreadful Vancouver penalty kill. It started out the season performing historically poorly under Travis Green, and while it improved to middle-of-the-road under Bruce Boudreau, the team still finished with the 31st ranked PK when all was said and done.
The 44 power play goals scored against Demko were the second-most in the NHL, behind Saros. And, sure, a goalie is a part of the PK unit, too, and Demko is not entirely without fault here. But when a penalty kill is that bad, it can’t help but to submarine a goaltender’s statline.
Just look at Demko’s overall numbers, and look at them at 5v5. When he wasn’t playing behind the NHL’s worst PK, he was safely within the top-three leaguewide, and it’s hard to imagine anyone performing well behind the shorthanded Canucks.
Goal support is an oft-underrated component of a goaltender’s success. The Vancouver Canucks (as of this writing) sit 18th in the NHL in goals-per-game with 3.01 — not awful, but not great, either.
What’s perhaps even more important here is the Canucks’ penchant for giving up the first goal in a game.
A goaltender’s job is always far easier when their team is in the lead. The entire set of skaters is able to play tighter defensively and not take as many risks. The opponents, meanwhile, must play with increasing desperation as the clock ticks down.
On most nights, however, it was the Canucks who were trailing, and the Canucks who had to loosen up their defence and take more risks in an attempt to catch up. It’s hard to measure, but that had to have a direct impact on Demko, even if he clearly fought through it quite well.
Workload is also an important consideration. A starting goalie’s job, after all, is to start, and a goaltender who is able to play on a more regular basis will always be more valuable.
Demko’s 64 games played were the third-most in the NHL, behind Saros and Connor Hellebuyck, who isn’t anywhere near Vezina contention.
He played one more game than Markstrom, two more than Vasilevskiy, and 11 more than Shesterkin.
Give Shersterkin a dozen more games, and maybe his overall numbers start to slip a bit, too. It’s impossible to know, but at least there’s no guesswork when it comes to Demko: he played those games, and he played them well.
For this last note, we turn to you, reader.
Look at the above assemblage of stats and metrics. It all looks pretty darn good, but do you feel like it well and truly represents the quality of play you saw from Demko in the 2021/22 season?
Maybe not. It takes the “eye-test” to see the actual quality of any given high-danger chance, or to see the genuine difficulty of a save.
Time and time again, Demko made the impossible look possible. On a nightly basis, he made saves that he shouldn’t have. On countless occasions, he kept the Canucks in games that they had no right to be in.
In fact, he personally kept his team in a playoff race that it probably had no right to be in.
The point we’re trying to make here is that there definitely is a statistical argument to be made for Demko receiving a Vezina Trophy nomination, but an even better argument is just watching the man tend net.
His performance speaks for itself, in more ways than one.
Vezina Nomination or No?
At the end of the day, we don’t really predict that Demko will receive a Vezina nomination for the 2021/22 season.
Shesterkin is going to win it. Vasilevskiy and Markstrom are likely going to join his as nominees, and the fact that each of their teams made it to the playoffs is definitely going to be counted in their favour.
But we think there’s plenty of compelling reason for Demko to be in the conversation, and ample reason to believe he’ll continue to be there for years to come.
And really, what does a nomination matter, anyway? The real takeaway here is that Demko has joined the uppermost tier of starting goaltenders. That’s more important, moving forward, than him being recognized as the absolute best.
The Canucks don’t need an award show to appreciate what they’ve got.