As well as the Canucks are playing, they’re still leaning as heavily on Thatcher Demko as ever
Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
26 days ago
The 2023/24 Vancouver Canucks are a lot of fun to watch, and a true breath of fresh air to a fanbase that has suffered for more than long enough.
But they don’t make a lot of sense.
It’s not just that the Canucks have already defied expectations by getting off to an 8-2-1 start, the best in franchise history. It’s not just that they’ve already traveled further up the standings that most thought they would for the next couple of years.
It’s that, by the numbers, they really shouldn’t be having this much success. And yet they are. Why is that?
The long answer is a multitude of factors that all seem to be tipping in the Canucks’ favour thus far in the nascent 2023/24 campaign.
The short answer is Thatcher Demko.
As well as the Canucks have played, as strong a start as many individual skaters have put forth, it’s still Demko that is the primary difference-maker night-in and night-out. The Canucks are still leaning as heavily on Demko as they ever have…and he’s proving to be up for the challenge.
Here’s something strange that one notices when browsing a fancy stat archive like NaturalStatTrick: the Canucks are the singular best team at 5v5 scoring differential, and yet have among the lowest expected goals differential in the league.
The Canucks have, as of this writing, scored 29 5v5 goals (third-most) and allowed just 11 5v5 goals against (lowest) for a goals-for ratio of 72.50%, which is not just the highest in the league, but a full ten percentage points ahead of second-place.
And yet, when one looks at the charts for expected goals — that stat that attempts to measure, through difficulty and locale, the likelihood of any given shot going in — the Canucks are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
With an xGF% of 44.14, the Canucks sit fourth-worst in the NHL, ahead of just the St. Louis Blues, the San Jose Sharks, and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Canucks have been expected to score 18.44 goals at 5v5 thus far in 2023/24, meaning they’ve outstripped expectations by more than ten goals. That makes sense, with several Canucks pacing for career years already, and a number of them sustaining unsustainable shooting percentages.
The Canucks’ xGA, however, is 23.34, which is in even starker contrast to their actual 5v5 goals against of just 11. And there, with all due respect to Casey DeSmith, the bulk of the credit goes to the excellent play of Demko.
According to MoneyPuck’s data, Demko himself should have given up about 15.24 goals against at 5v5 this season. That means he’s faced the tenth-most difficult workload of any NHL goalie, by shot volume and quality.
The actual amount of 5v5 goals that Demko has let in is eight, which is almost down to half of his expected total. That gives him a 5v5 GSAA (goals saved above expected) of 7.2, easily the highest in the league.
It’s often said that good goaltenders “keep their teams in games they shouldn’t be in,” but here is statistical proof of Demko doing exactly that. Thanks to his goaltending exploits at even-strength, Demko is stealing back nearly one goal-that-should-have-gone-in per night, and that’s obviously making as much of a difference as the offensive brilliance of the skaters.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the high-danger stats.
At 5v5, the Canucks have earned 79 scoring chances rated “high-danger,” and have allowed 110 against. That’s a ratio of 41.80%, which as again fourth-worst in the league behind St. Louis, San Jose, and Chicago…not a great crowd to keep finding oneself in.
When it comes to actually converting on those high-danger chances, however, it’s a different story. The Canucks have cashed in on 18 of their HDCs, and allowed just five high-danger goals against. That ratio, 78.26%, is easily the best in the league.
And the reason for that is, again, Demko.
According to NaturalStatTrick, Demko, personally, has faced down 51 high-danger shots already through eight games. He’s allowed just one high-danger goal. That gives him a HD save percentage of .980, the highest in the league aside from Ivan Prosvetov and Anthony Stolarz, who have each faced three and nine high-danger shots, respectively.
MoneyPuck has Demko with an expected save-percentage on unblocked high-danger shots of .733 and an actual save-percentage on unblocked high-danger shots of .941, a swing of 0.208. That means that Demko is saving 20% more of the highest-quality shots that he faces than the statistical models say he should be.
That, more than anything, is what is ensuring that the Canucks stay in the win column.
DeSmith deserves ample credit here, too. His GSAA of 2.5 is tied for 17th in the league and is among the best of any NHL backup.
But by the same measure, Demko has played double the games and made triple the difference on a per-game basis.
By these tokens, it’s hard to see Demko as anything but the league’s leading Vezina candidate through the early going. Strangely enough, that honour might be less contentious than suggesting that Demko is the Canucks’ team MVP. Elias Pettersson is, after all, tied for the lead in NHL scoring.
But as good as Pettersson has been, there are plenty of other players on the Canucks’ roster than are capable of and have been putting up big numbers on the scoreboard. There is still only one Thatcher Demko.
And the Canucks need him as much as they ever have.
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