Comparing Thatcher Demko and Michael DiPietro’s Rookie AHL Seasons

In the last decade, the Vancouver Canucks‘ strength has arguably been their goaltending. From Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider to Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, the franchise has enjoyed relative stability in net. In the midst of this unprecedented season, it might be easy to forget that the Canucks still have Michael DiPietro playing in Utica.

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The 21-year-old enjoyed a decent yet unspectacular season in the minors, and his numbers were eerily similar to Demko’s rookie AHL season. Naturally, this begs the question as to who had the better first season on the Comets.

The Strength of Demko and DiPietro’s Teams

The first thing to note when comparing the two young goalies is the strength of their teams. Both netminders finished with similar goals-against averages and save percentages, but DiPietro did it on a much better team; Demko played in 45 games and won 22 of them while DiPietro garnered 21 wins in just 36 matches. The latter was helped by a squad that included players like Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin, who both have plenty of NHL experience.

Goldobin was also on Demko’s 2016-17 team but was much younger and not as polished as he was on DiPietro’s squad. If we want to examine the individual performances of the two netminders with more accuracy, then, a better method would be to look at the team’s defensive performance rather than their overall record.

Thatcher Demko Vancouver Canucks
Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even though the 2019-20 Comets finished top-10 in the league, their defence was in the bottom half of the AHL. In fact, they ranked 17th in goals against per game (3.05 against) and 22nd on the penalty kill (80.6%) out of 31 teams. Likewise, Demko’s 2016-17 squad was 21st on both the penalty kill (81%) and in goals against per game (2.9 against) out of 30 teams. 

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It seems like both netminders played behind sub-par defensive teams no matter what their overall record indicates. Furthermore, with Demko and DiPietro posting almost identical stats, it’s difficult to gauge which one of them put up the better rookie season in the minors. It’ll be much easier to analyze their games if advanced stats like goals saved above expected were commonly available for the AHL, but unfortunately, they’re not. 

Why DiPietro Had a Stronger Rookie Season

With that said, I believe that DiPietro had a more impressive first season for two main reasons: First, he was around six months younger than Demko was in his rookie AHL campaign. This is a huge difference for players who are still developing, and half of a year is a lot of time for one to hone their craft. The time difference is arguably more prevalent for goalies, especially ones who are making the jump from junior to the pro leagues; AHL players possess shots that are significantly harder and more accurate than skaters in the junior leagues. 

Michael DiPietro
Vancouver Canucks goalie Michael DiPietro (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

More importantly, DiPietro’s team was worse defensively compared to the league average. Even though the 2019-20 Comets finished in the top half of the league in terms of their record, the team’s penalty kill was 1.6% below league average and they gave up 0.05 more goals per game than the average as well. In comparison, the 2016-17 squad’s penalty kill was only 0.9% worse and they gave up a mere 0.02 goals more than the average. That separation seems negligible, but it adds up over the course of a full season when you consider that both goalies played in most of their teams’ games. 

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Ultimately, the numbers seem to indicate that DiPietro had a better rookie season in the AHL than Demko, although the difference is minuscule. The 21-year-old managed to put up similar numbers to Demko even though he played behind a team that was worse defensively compared to league average and was younger when he did it. This is good news for the Canucks, as the organization can feel safe about their goaltending situation for years to come.