Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
The dearth of goaltending talent in the NHL right now makes Thatcher Demko more valuable than ever
6 months ago
Thatcher Demko is back, and we don’t just mean from injury.
Heading into the 2022/23 season, there were few out there that wouldn’t concede Demko’s status as a top-ten NHL goaltender. The 2021/22 campaign, Demko’s first as a full-time dedicated starter, saw him go 33-22-7 with a .915 save percentage and a 2.72 goals-against average. They may not be eye-popping numbers, but given the quality of the team in front of him, they were impressive, and enough to get Demko a seventh-place finish in Vezina voting for the year, along with plenty of leaguewide recognition.
Then the opening bars of 2022/23 hit, and things fell apart for a time. The whole darn team got off to an ice-cold start, but even within that context, Demko’s play was noticeably off. Through his first 15 games, Demko went 3-10-2, which is bad enough, but his personal starts were somehow even worse. Demko’s save percentage of .883 and goals against of 3.93 were both bottom-ten results, and his goals-saved-above-average — the go-to fancy stat for goalies — was for a time the very worst in the NHL.
Then, in early December, Demko got hurt, and the timing was almost merciful. What was supposed to be an absence of a few weeks soon ballooned into a full three months on the IR, during which time Demko conveniently missed out on a great deal of turmoil. Bo Horvat was traded, Bruce Boudreau was fired, and Rick Tocchet was brought in; and suddenly, things were back on track with the team.
What a perfect time for Demko to return. The real Demko.
February 27 marked Demko’s official comeback, a 34-save overtime victory. And then it was right back to the usual, show-stopping Demko. Through his final 17 games on the season, Demko went 11-4-2 with a 2.52 goals against average. His .918 save percentage over the same stretch was in the top-ten amongst NHL starters.
And, keep in mind, that this portion of the season also featured defenders like Christian Wolanin, Guillaume Brisebois, and Noah Juulsen in the lineup on a nightly basis. All played well enough, but none are everyday NHL players, which is just further testament to Demko’s bounceback performance.
Which brings us to the current day.
Heading into 2023/24, there’s little reason to believe that Demko won’t continue his strong play. Placed into the grander context of his entire career thus far, the start of the 2022/23 campaign looks more and more like a tiny, 15-game anomaly that came with a boatload of complicating circumstances.
At every other stage of his career, Demko has been nothing short of reliable, consistent, and unflappable. That’s the Demko that most expect to hit the ice come October, and that’s the Demko that has never been more valuable in the National Hockey League.
It’s no real secret that goaltending, as an enterprise, is in a serious lull. Rarely, if ever, has there been such a dearth of goaltending talent in the league, and it’s a situation that makes the few top-notch starters, like Demko, an increasingly important commodity.
Think about it. How many goalies out there right now could you say are better than Demko on a night-in, night-out basis? How many would you be willing to trade straight-up for him?
The list isn’t zero, but it is short. You’ve got Igor Shesterkin and Ilya Sorokin. You’ve got the already-legendary Andrei Vasilevskiy. There’s Juuse Saros and Connor Hellebuyck, probably. Maybe Jake Oettinger in Dallas. Possibly Linus Ullmark after the season he had last year.
And then that’s about it.
Tristan Jarry? Too up-and-down. Sergei Bobrovsky? Weighed down by his contract. John Gibson? Hasn’t been good in years. Jeremy Swayman? Largely unproven. Darcy Kuemper? The Avs won the Cup in spite of him, not because of him.
There may be some incoming talent that folks project to one day reach this echelon: Jesper Wallstedt, Dustin Wolf, Yaroslav Askarov, possibly even Arturs Silovs. But as the lack of netminders at “the top” indicates, making it to that level is far from a guarantee these days. And those goalies who do make it to that level are probably worth hanging onto for dear life.
The breakout international accolades of Silovs, combined with Demko’s slow start last year, have many in the fanbase and mediasphere openly contemplating whether it would be wise for the Canucks to cash out on their 27-year-old starter. The current shape of the league says that they would only do so at their own peril, and would undoubtedly run the risk of it being a long, long time before they got another goaltender of his quality in their crease.
It’s not just that Demko is a locked-in, no-dispute top-ten goalie in the NHL right now. It’s how sharp and steep the drop-off is after that top-ten. For whatever reason, consistent starting goalies are now the rarest of commodities in the NHL.
Say what you will about elite centers, they’re important, too. Elias Pettersson is certainly as valuable as Demko, if not considerably more. But when we’re talking about supply-and-demand, we have to acknowledge that there are at least a dozen other elite centers out there in the league along with Pettersson, as well as plenty of other 1Cs that belong in the conversation.
With goaltending, it’s Demko, six or seven other guys, some promising youngsters, and then a whole lot of junk.
For the Canucks, who hope to compete before the end of Demko’s current contract, it’s an important consideration. Trade him now, or anytime soon, and the conversation immediately becomes about goaltending again.
Canucks fans don’t have to think too hard about what it’s like to have a quality team brought down by less-than-quality goaltending. They lived through the West Coast Express era.
And, in those days, there were simply more good goalies to go around. That’s no longer the case.
Is it possible that Silovs will develop into the same quality of goaltender as Demko? Absolutely. Few prospects are on a better developmental track than him.
But until it actually happens, the reality is that it has to be considered a longshot. Goalies that reach that level of play are an increasingly rare commodity.
And what should you do when you find yourself in possession of an increasingly rare commodity?
You hold onto it for dear life.
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