The Vancouver Canucks are back in the playoff race thanks mostly to the brilliant play of Thatcher Demko. He is firmly entrenched as the starting goaltender and does not look like he’s giving it up any time soon. He may have struggled out of the gate, but is now on an 8-1-0 run with a 1.74 goals-against average (GAA) and .950 save percentage (SV%) to go along with one shutout.
He is by far the hottest goaltender in the NHL right now and is looking more and more like the man they called Bubble Demko during the 2020 Playoffs when he posted a minuscule 0.64 GAA and almost perfect .985 SV% en route to a win away from the third round.
Demko is legitimately in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy, and he’s doing it behind a team that does not play the best defensively. The Canucks are virtually at the bottom of all the major defensive categories ranking 30th in shots against, 29th in slot shots against, 30th in rush chances against, and 31st in expected goals against.
Like his predecessor Jacob Markstrom, he’s constantly bombarded with high danger chances and is rarely ever given a break from the vulcanized rubber being launched towards him. The fact that he has a 2.66 GAA and .921 SV% is mind-boggling considering the amount of scoring chances he has to contend with every game. Not to mention he also has a sparkling 10.8 goals saved above average (GSAA) rating, which means he is saving almost 11 goals more than the average goaltender in the NHL.
Demko’s journey from college star to Vezina Trophy caliber goaltender has been fun to watch. Let’s take a look at what he’s accomplished so far as he continues to blaze a path to Roberto Luongo and the best goaltenders in franchise history.
Demko Time Began at Boston College
After two seasons split between the USHL and USDP, Demko committed himself to Boston College (BC) and its prestigious hockey program. Like Cory Schneider before him, he became a college icon, establishing himself as the clearcut number one and brick wall in goal. Over the course of his time with the team, he won multiple awards including being named a Hobey Baker finalist, Hockey East’s Player of the Year, and finally the Mike Richter Award for the best goaltender in the NCAA. He basically dominated the entire collegiate circuit during the 2015-16 season, finishing with a nearly flawless 1.88 GAA and .935 SV% along with a record-setting 10 shutouts that still stands as the most a goaltender has posted in a single season at BC.
Demko also was key in BC’s 2015 and 2016 Beanpot titles, posting a .947 SV% along with a shutout in the 2016 iteration when he backstopped his team to a 1-0 victory with 30 saves.
Demko only played three seasons at the NCAA level, deciding to turn pro before his senior year. He left BC firmly entrenched in the record books with a 2.08 GAA (2nd), 13 shutouts (tied for second with Scott Clemmensen), and 62 wins (seventh). The 2016 National Championship was the only thing he didn’t end up winning, walking away with two Beanpot titles as consolation prizes.
Demko’s Move to the Utica Comets & Surprising NHL Debut
After so much success at the college level with BC, Demko needed some time to adjust to the professional game at the AHL level with the Utica Comets. It didn’t take long though, as he finished his rookie season with a solid 22-17-5 record, a 2.68 GAA, and a .907 SV%. He also posted his first two pro shutouts.
Demko’s 2017-18 sophomore season saw him only get better, as he wrestled the starting role from Richard Bachman and began to display the sort of game that BC fans witnessed throughout his collegiate career. He put up insane numbers in the month of September en route to his first AHL Goaltender of the Month Award and ended up with his first taste of NHL action against the Columbus Blue Jackets only a few months later. His debut was an up and down affair as the Blue Jackets erased a 4-1 deficit in the span of only two minutes and 30 seconds, leading to his first overtime action in the NHL. The Canucks ended up winning it with a goal from Alex Edler, so he finished the game with his first win as well.
Despite allowing four goals in his surprising NHL debut, Demko took the game as a learning experience and endeavored to use it to improve himself over the course of the summer.
This is my first time seeing what it’s like up here. It’s a lot faster. Pucks are moving quicker and guys are making plays. I feel like one of the biggest things I’ll be working on is just making reads a little bit quicker and realizing where potential threats are. Just a tonne of stuff that I’m excited I was able (to see) and take into summer and really work on.
Even though his team collapsed at the end of the game, Demko didn’t look out of place in his NHL debut. He looked calm and in control for most of the game, and when the walls looked like they were collapsing around him, he still made the save when it counted to lead to Edler’s two-on-one goal in overtime. Darren Archibald, who was his teammate in Utica, knew what the Canucks were getting when they signed Demko to an NHL contract.
He’s mentally strong…He comes to win every day. He’s always a well-prepared goalie, very focussed. I’ve seen him make some crazy big saves the last couple of years. It’s nice to see him get an opportunity to play in the NHL.
Little did everyone know that a couple of seasons later, he would be a Vezina Trophy contender in only his first campaign as an NHL starter.
Demko’s Concussion Scare
Unfortunately before Demko could build upon his NHL debut, he suffered a concussion in training camp that sidelined him for two months. After four long months of preparation in hopes of usurping backup Anders Nilsson, he had to deal with the frustrating recovery of a brain injury that sometimes never goes away.
It was definitely frustrating. I worked four months in the summer to make sure I came into camp ready to go. At times, you can get a pretty negative mindset. You know, all the progress you’ve made over the summer has been wasted. I tried to stay as positive as I could. Couple times it was pretty scary, maybe having symptoms a couple days in a row, your mind starts to wander into worst case scenario.Thatcher Demko on recovering from his first major concussion (from ‘Catching up with Thatcher Demko: On his ‘scary’ concussion, a new goalie coach and embracing failure’, AthleticNHL, 12/11/18)
Demko was right to be scared about the possibility of losing out on a promising NHL career due to a concussion. Micheal Ferland is still dealing with post-concussion symptoms and is inching closer and closer to retirement at the young age of 28, so it’s definitely something that happens. Adam Deadmarsh, who was forced to retire in 2003 is probably the most documented case, as he suffered two serious ones and is still suffering the effects of them to this day.
Fortunately for Demko, he recovered from it and returned to the Comets before taking his rightful place as the backup to Jacob Markstrom after Nilsson was traded to the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline.
Demko Saved His Brilliance for the Playoffs
After a relatively average season as the full-time backup to Markstrom where Demko posted a 3.06 GAA and a .905 SV% in 25 starts, he absolutely broke out in the playoffs. It took an injury to their MVP, but it gave him a chance to show everyone in the league that he could be just as good as Markstrom, if not better.
Demko’s debut in the playoffs went a lot better than his debut in the regular season, as he stopped 42 shots en route to his first playoff win and kept the Canucks alive in their series against the Vegas Golden Knights. Then, when you thought he was at his best, he rose to another level with a brilliant 48-save shutout only a game later.
Similar to how he was in college, Demko rose to the occasion and became his team’s best player and proverbial brick wall in goal. The Golden Knights threw everything but the kitchen sink at him and he casually swatted it away with brilliant athleticism and absolutely perfect positioning. There were times where it looked like nothing was going to beat him, that’s how good he was during that series.
Unfortunately, the Canucks couldn’t give him any run support in Game 7 as he was almost perfect yet again, allowing only one goal on 34 shots. Except Robin Lehner was a save better, despite only facing 14 shots. Nevertheless, Demko almost did the unthinkable and dragged his team to the third round even though they never deserved it. Mark Stone’s reaction in the hand-shake line said it all, as he stoned him and many other Golden Knights multiple times throughout the series.
To put an exclamation point on Demko’s performance, Golden Knights’ head coach Pete DeBoer admitted that he was in their heads even during their series against the Dallas Stars. That’s how dominant he was in the series, he apparently stifled their offence sitting at home in Vancouver.
There’s no doubt that the last couple games of the Vancouver series against Demko probably rattled our confidence a little bit in that [scoring] area as a group. Honestly, up ’til that point, I thought we were creating a ton of offence. We were scoring a lot of goals. It was never an issue… There was really no signs of it up until the end of the Vancouver series.
Demko’s coming out party was without a doubt that playoff series against the Golden Knights. He basically showed the Canucks that he was ready to take the starting goaltender job from Markstrom as soon as the 2020-21 season.
Is the Vezina Trophy in Demko’s Near Future?
After Markstrom signed with the Calgary Flames and Braden Holtby replaced him on the Canucks, many people thought that management didn’t have full confidence in Demko. That may have been the case at the beginning, but coupled with Holtby’s mediocre performance (3.57 GAA, .894 SV%, minus-5.4 GSAA) and the return of Bubble Demko, there’s no doubt that he’s the de facto number one right now.
Related: Top 3 All-Time Canucks Goaltenders
If Demko continues his run of dominant play where his positioning and athleticism are nearly flawless and he’s only allowing an average of two goals a game, the Vezina Trophy should be in his future. With how many shots and chances he has to face every game, the conversation should be squarely focused on him, especially if he keeps it up until the end of the season. If he can, the Canucks will also have a chance at making the playoffs and continuing the legacy of Demko Time that began at BC and the Beanpot only a few seasons ago.