As they ponder trading Thatcher Demko, Canucks should consider how hard quality goalies are to come by
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
10 months ago
There are many measures available by which to judge the quality of an NHL goaltender.
Some still swear by the old classics. Saves, save percentages, goals against average, and etcetera. You know the ones. In essence, they track how frequently a goalie saves the puck versus letting it in, and that makes enough sense for everyone to understand.
There are also those who fall more into the “Grant Fuhr” camp of judging goalies. To them, it’s all about the record: let in as many goals as you want, just make sure it’s one fewer than the other goalie let in. Here, wins, losses, and overtime losses are all that really count.
Of course, in the modern age of analytics, we’ve also got an abundance of fancy stats that allow us to dig beneath the surface of a goalie’s performance. High-danger chances, goals saved above average, and defensive point shares. These numbers get into the nitty gritty of how difficult the shots a goalie faces actually are, and how much more (or less) effective they are than another goalie would be placed in their same situation. They’re probably the most accurate and effective methods we currently have available of judging goalies, and yet they’re not perfect, either.
That’s why we’re proposing a new standard of measurement for a quality goaltender, one that doesn’t require numbers at all, just vibes.
And that standard is: would you feel comfortable beginning any playoff series with this individual as your team’s starting goaltender?
After all, isn’t that what it’s really all about?
If the answer is ‘yes,’ you’ve got yourself a quality goaltender.
If the answer is ‘no,’ you don’t.
Which brings us to the Vancouver Canucks and Thatcher Demko.
No one can deny that this season has been a struggle for Demko, and that was true long before his current and mysteriously-extended injury. As far as all those counting stats we mentioned above are concerned, he’s among the league’s worst goalies in 2022/23.
But there are few who would answer ‘no’ to the above question of having comfort in Demko starting a playoff series (assuming he recovers in time.) The memories of Bubble Demko in 2020 and Regular Season Demko in 2021 are too strong for much doubt to creep in.
In other words, he’s still a quality goalie in our books, until proven otherwise.
The Canucks have been on a pretty good streak of having goalies of this quality, too. In fairly quick succession, they went from Roberto Luongo to Jacob Markstrom to Demko. That’s three quality goalies in a row, with only a few, small, Eddie Lack-sized gaps in between.
Now, rumours are swirling that Demko is on the trading block. And given that recent history, it might be tempting to think that, should the Canucks actually move him, it won’t be all that long before another quality goaltender appears to take up the reigns.
Except, team history before Roberto Luongo puts the truth to that lie. Because, before the Canucks went on a run of three quality goaltenders in a row, getting their hands on a quality goaltender once seemed like an impossibility.
Kirk McLean was obviously a quality goalie, but his last year as definitive Canucks starter was 1997. Past that, the Canucks have cycled through quite a collection of “goalies you wouldn’t feel all that comfortable starting a playoff series with.”
Sean Burke. Garth Snow. Kevin Weekes. Felix Potvin. Bob Essensa. Peter Skudra. Martin Brochu. Dan Cloutier. Johan Hedberg. Alex Auld.
Those who have been alive long enough to remember those days will certainly remember the level of frustration pointed at this issue by fans and media alike. The problem was never more apparent than during the West Coast Express era, when everyone and their dog were screaming at Brian Burke to just acquire a netminder who could stop a beachball punted from center ice, and Burke ultimately had to put up his hands and say “Sorry, can’t.”
The Canucks went nearly a decade between quality starters. That might sound like a lot, but take the franchise average, and it’s not. This team has been around for 53 years, and it’s had about five truly quality starters in Richard Brodeur, McLean, Luongo, Markstrom, and Demko.
One per decade is the standard.
And as we look around the league, we see that’s not exactly unusual.
In the NHL right now, how many true quality starters can we find?
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Connor Hellebuyck, Igor Shesterkin, and Ilya Sorokin are all slam-dunks. We like to think that Markstrom and Demko still apply. Linus Ullmark probably gets in there with his dominant season, but he’s been up-and-down over the years. Begrudgingly, we might slide Jordan Binnington onto the list. Maybe Juuse Saros and maybe a healthy Robin Lehner, too.
You’ll note that last season’s Cup winner, Darcy Kuemper, does not make the list, as he was clearly buoyed by a strong Colorado roster, who may have won in spite of him.
You should also note that, even with all of the maybes included, it’s not a very long list. It’s not even one quality starting goalie for every three teams in the NHL.
Even blue-chip goaltending prospects are hard to come by. Looking at the future rankings, no one stands out as a sure thing. Maybe Jesper Wallstedt or Yaroslav Askarov, but even then there are plenty of question marks.
The fact seems indisputable: true quality goaltenders, the kind you’re always confident to start a playoff series with, are a rare commodity in the NHL, and always have been.
Therefore, the notion of Demko being easily and quickly replaceable is a faulty one.
Now, if the Canucks were actually committed to a rebuild, this might not be a factor. The team could decide that it’s not going to compete within the remaining four years of Demko’s contract, and it could cash in on him now for an abundance of future-based assets. That might even be the smart call.
But the Canucks are not committing to a proper rebuild. They’ve made several moves that indicate that they do intend on competing sometime in those next four years. Andrei Kuzmenko was just re-signed for two of them. Those four years cover years 30-33 on the JT Miller extension, which will definitely be the best value years of that contract. Four years is about all that we can count on for Elias Pettersson still definitely being around.
So, as far as the Canucks are currently set-up, at least a couple of the next four years should matter. And if that’s the case, does the team really want to send itself on what may be a fruitless quest for another quality goaltender when they’ve already got one in hand?
History says that the odds of finding another goalie approaching anywhere near Demko’s equal over the next four years are mighty slim.
They say that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” In this case, it’s more like “a bird in the hand is worth more than searching through a bush that is probably already out of birds.”
That’s worth consideration as the Canucks consider letting Demko fly.
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