A while back, Brian Burke described Vancouver as a goalie graveyard.
Ever since the arrival of Roberto Luongo in 2006, that term has been laid to rest. Luongo started an era of relative consistency between the pipes, giving way to the likes of Cory Schnieder, Ryan Miller, and Jacob Markstrom.
Now, the mantle of starter falls upon Thatcher Demko.
It’s a role that he’s long been groomed for. Selected in the second round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, it’s taken him a couple of years to fully arrive in the big leagues. Last season, Demko cemented himself as one of the better starters in the league.
This year, he wants more.
“Last year I wanted to be a starting goalie full time,” Demko told reporters yesterday ahead of training camp. “Now it’s about being one of the top goaltenders in the league. Just being the starter isn’t good enough.”
Advertisement
Ad
Some Canuck fans will tell you that he already is one of the best goalies in the league. Others insist that he’s closer to the middle of the curve than the top. Whichever is the case, one thing is true: Demko has not received much recognition around the league. At least, not yet.
It should excite this fanbase that Demko still has his eyes set higher. Over the past two seasons, the American netminder has posted a save percentage of .915%, ranking him 11th among goalies that played more than 42 games and well above the league average of .907%. He was 13th in goals saved above expected and 12th in wins above replacement — all solid indications of a borderline top 10 NHL netminder.
But he’s not quite in the top 10. The gulf isn’t enormous, but it’s still there. That’s something that Demko will want to close, and needs to close if the Canucks want to compete in the postseason, much less make it there.
Advertisement
Ad
Demko has shown that he’s been capable of that elite netminding. Year after year, the netminder has been improving, whittling down his goals against average while increasing his save percentage in every league that he has played in. Even with how disastrous the first bit of the 2021-22 season was, the lone bright spot was Demko between the pipes, the sole reason why the Canucks even had a fighting chance in most games.
Last season, it was about finding that consistency to be a starting netminder. This season, it’s about finding that next gear, to bring all the sparkling performances scattered throughout into one singular gem, elevating the level of play to become consistently elite.
Realistically, what separates an elite netminder from a good one? Every goalie in the league has good technique. They’ve mastered their post integrations, worked on their rebound control, focused on cutting down shooting angles and recognizing high-danger situations. Yes, some netminders are better than others at certain facets, and everyone has their own style, but the position has more or less been optimized to have a minimum technical requirement to start regularly in the NHL. Every goalie needs to be good.
Advertisement
Ad
But not all goalies have the ability to make the big save. Not all goalies have the ability to turn the tide with one save. Not all goalies can literally steal a goal away from the opposition. What separates an elite goalie from a good starter is that intangible ability to make a save that 92% of the league’s goalies cannot.
It’s something that Demko is capable of.
Does Demko deserve recognition? Absolutely. Is he not getting the shoutouts that he deserves right now? That’s debatable. For all of Demko’s exploits, a glaring issue remains — the Vancouver Canucks have missed the playoffs for the past two seasons that he’s been the starting netminder.
If the team starts winning, then naturally more plaudits will come Demko’s way. More eyes will be drawn to the team, more awareness will filter around the league. Right now, the lack of team success has been holding Demko back the most from receiving the tangible recognition that he probably deserves.
Advertisement
Ad
A 7th place finish in Vezina voting is a good place to start though.
It’s why Demko’s statement that he’s wanting to take that next step is so encouraging. He is already easily a solid, above-average netminder. Many teams would love to have just that. But that drive, the desire to be part of that elite group, is what is going to bring the most improvement and success not only for Demko, but the franchise. With the coaching that he has from Ian Clark, along with the gifts that he possesses physically and innately, all the signs are pointing at an upward trend that makes the Canucks just that much better.
And hopefully, Demko will get the support that he needs from the team in front of him, offensively and defensively.
Advertisement
Ad
Slowly but surely, Demko will emerge as an elite netminder backstopping a winning team. When that happens, the awards and recognition will all come flowing on in.
But Canucks fans will know what they had in Demko long before the rest of the league recognizes him.