At a time when not a lot is going right for the Vancouver Canucks, it’s important to pay extra attention to the limited number of positives if one still wants to enjoy watching the games. That list of positives starts (and nearly ends) with Thatcher Demko.
With all due respect to Conor Garland, Demko is the Canucks’ undisputed MVP through ten games of the 2021/22 season, if for nothing more than the fact that the team’s current situation would be so, so much worse without him.
Demko has started eight of those games, and as of this writing, sits with a record of 4-3-1. That’s not exactly stellar, and it’s barely above .500, but it also represents the sum total of the Canucks’ success thus far. And Demko’s responsibility for that success is even more clear-cut when his personal stats are delved into.
On the outermost surface, Demko’s numbers are good, and maybe even great, but not exactly earth-shattering or Vezina-quality. His save percentage of .923 places him 20th overall in the league, and his 2.48 goals-against-average ranks 26th. It’s early, and there are a lot of non-starters riding small sample sizes ahead of him in the list, but that’s the situation as it currently stands.
One has to get into the fancier stats and apply some vital context to start seeing why Demko’s performance truly stands out. In this case, the most important context is the many ways in which his teammates make Demko’s job more difficult on a nightly basis.
Let’s begin with the team’s penalty kill, which has rebounded slightly of late but still rates as one of the worst in the league. As a result, Demko is consistently left out to dry while shorthanded, and as a result of that, seven of Demko’s 20 goals against have come on the PK.
You can’t discount those goals against entirely. All goalies need to kill penalties, and the opposition is naturally going to score more frequently on the power play than they do in other situations. But the balance is clearly out of whack a bit here, the responsibility for the lack of shorthanded success falls primarily on non-Demko shoulders, and it’s having a demonstrable dragging-down effect on the rest of his statline.
Isolating Demko’s performance in other situations changes the picture dramatically.
At 5-on-5, Demko has only let in 12 goals on 183 shots for a save percentage of .938. That’s good enough for 11th among NHL starters.
Again, the more context that is applied, the more Demko starts to shine. The Expected Goals Against stat measures the difficulty of the shots and chances a goalie faces, and specifically how many goals an average goalie should allow under those same circumstances. Demko’s 5-on-5 expected goals-against is a staggering 15.29 through eight starts, meaning he’s faced the third-most quality chances of any goaltender in the league.
Demko’s Goals Saved Above Average, which measures his actual performance against that average expectation, is 2.67. That means that he alone is responsible for saving the Canucks about three goals against so far on the season.
Given that two of Vancouver’s four wins have been by a single goal, it shouldn’t need to be emphasized how much a difference those non-goals-against have made.
One further layer of context deep, and Demko looks even better.
NaturalStatTrick tracks a variety of scoring chances, including those deemed “High-Danger,” as in those most likely to result in a goal against. According to them, Demko has faced 61 high-danger shots through eight games, second-most in the league behind Robin Lehner.
Demko has stopped 54 of those 61 shots. His 54 high-danger saves rates number one in the entire NHL. In other words, no goalie has successfully made more difficult saves in 2021/22 than Thatcher Demko. In other, other words, no goalie has been as much of a difference-maker between their team’s on-ice success and failure than Demko.
That’s MVP stuff right there. It might even be Vezina stuff. But everyone knows that stats can only say so much when it comes to hockey, and that’s especially true of goalies. Fortunately, the eye test also speaks very loudly about Demko’s dominance this season.
Only those who watch the games can tell you just how high-danger some of those shots against have been, and just how above-average were some of the saves Demko responded with. There are certain signs of goaltending greatness that just can’t be translated onto a stat sheet. The kind of stuff you’ve got to see to believe.
You saw the headline. You know the play we’re about to talk about and, if you’ve read this far, you probably already realize why it’s emblematic of Demko’s early-season excellence.
With fewer than three minutes left in the third period, the Canucks are tied 2-2 and still shorthanded after killing off the first portion of a 5-on-3. Tyler Myers fans on a clearing attempt, and the Rangers turn it around for a quick 3-on-1 down low, but Demko sprawls to make the save – only to have two of his teammates pile on top of him.
Somewhere in the chaos, Demko loses his stick and the blocker that was holding it. Before he even gets to his feet, he makes a remarkable kick save from his belly, but the play doesn’t get blown down (it absolutely should have been) and so he keeps tending goal barehanded.
As the Rangers take the puck to the point, Demko starts desperately waving his unprotected hand at the referee, but it’s only a secondary concern for Demko. The hand is the only thing pointed at the ref. Demko’s eyes, head, center of body, and glove all remain pointed at the play. In a situation where it would be VERY understandable for him to lose focus, Demko maintains focus. He stares down an Artemi Panarin blast – on the short-side, no less – and kicks it into the corner, and only then is the whistle blown.
It makes for an apt metaphor. Surrounded by chaos and the poor decisions of his teammates, Demko shut out all distractions, maintained an inhuman focus on the puck, and got the job done. In many ways, it’s what he’s been doing all season long, and it’s what he’ll probably have to do from here on out if he hopes to keep the Canucks in the playoff race.
This author isn’t the only one to notice, either. Most would agree that Demko is the Canucks’ early-season MVP, including resident goalie expert David Quadrelli.
A bad start by Connor Hellebuyck even has some, including Elliotte Friedman, anointing Demko as the frontrunner for the starter’s job on the US Olympic Team.
Will the 32 NHL GMs, voters for the Vezina Trophy, be the next to take notice?
For Demko, like the missing blocker, all that is definitely a secondary concern right now. Maybe even a tertiary concern. His eyes are, as ever, locked firmly on the puck — and, if we want to extend our metaphor, that puck represents the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If Demko carries the Canucks there on his back, as he’s currently shaping up to do, then most won’t care if he also gets his name on a trophy at the end of the year.
After all, the most important part of being the most valuable player is all that valuable play.