There are two constants for the Vancouver Canucks right now: the franchise’s state of flux, and Thatcher Demko.
Demko’s play over the course of this season has been nothing short of exceptional, but his most recent four game stretch was the cream of the crop. His shutout against the Kings, along with the three following nights where he posted above a .950 save percentage, helped launch the Canucks to the first four of their now five game unbeaten streak.
Demko’s stock is rising day to day, and the rest of the hockey world is taking notice. The NHL named him the league’s first star of the week on Monday. If the league’s players are headed to the Beijing Olympics in February, Demko’s currently a frontrunner to land one of Team USA’s three goalie spots. And with the wins finally starting to follow, Demko is quickly working his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation. Maybe even the Hart Trophy convo too, if you’re feeling particularly confident.
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Fresh off signing Demko to a five year extension in March, Vancouver is already reaping the rewards of one of the best goalie contracts in the league. New Canucks president Jim Rutherford understands that better than anyone.
A former NHL netminder himself, Rutherford knows a thing or two about the importance of solid goaltending from his previous managerial stops in Carolina and Pittsburgh. While running the Hurricanes, Cam Ward was an integral part of Rutherford’s Cup-winning 2006 team and beyond. During his time with the Penguins, Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray were prime examples of where timely puck stopping can take a franchise.
Rutherford sees Demko as more than just a goalie; he sees him as a core building block.
“One of the real pluses is we have a franchise goalie,” Rutherford said on Monday. “When you’re trying to build a championship team, and you already have that piece in place, you can start chipping away at things.”
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Getting consistently strong performances from a young goaltender is still a rarity in today’s NHL, and especially so at the rate he’s playing. Demko currently leads the league in games played with 24, all while posting a .917 save percentage behind a team that’s given up more shots than any other.
And the Canucks’ recent resurgence has been thanks in large part to the man in goal. As Bruce Boudreau has encouraged his new players to be more aggressive on the attack, that strategy only works if the team is confident that their goalie will be able to bail out any potential mistakes. A perfect example came against the Jets, when Demko stopped a Blake Wheeler breakaway before Nils Höglander immediately turned the puck back the other way and scored off the rush.
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“When you get that kind of goaltending, you win almost every game,” Boudreau said of Demko’s performance on Friday.
Through the first 25 games, that “almost” did a lot of heavy lifting. Despite Demko putting up masterclass games the entire season, the team’s struggles with scoring and special teams only translated into a 5-11-1 record for their goalie. Now, with a brand new lease on life for the Canucks’ lineup, Demko’s standout performances are finally turning into points on the board.
After Halak finally got his first win of the season on Tuesday against the Blue Jackets, it’s likely that Demko will see his workload reduced slightly in order to keep him fresh in the later stages of the season. But after months of the Canucks being held in games solely due to Demko’s play, if the wins keep piling up for him and his teammates now, he could cement himself as one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders by the time this season ends.
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