Late last week, Thatcher Demko was recalled from the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. Space was created, probably on purpose, for their young 2014 second-round pick and Boston College product from San Diego, California, by trading Anders Nilsson and putting (and losing) Mike McKenna on waivers.
Although the Canucks have been grooming Demko for what seems like years now to eventually take over the starting job in goal, his immediate role is expected to be as Jacob Markstrom’s backup. Markstrom is simply playing too well to be replaced right now. He, with the Canucks’ young forwards, have been driving forces for keeping the team’s postseason hopes alive.
How Much Will Demko Play?
It is expected that Demko’s grooming will continue with the Canucks and that his immediate load will be relatively light. That plan certainly works with the schedule. The Canucks just completed a six-game road trip with a 3-3 record, and only play six more games in January. That helps Demko because, when he plays, the team in front of him will be rested.
In fact, the Canucks have no back-to-back games before the All-Star break. It could be that he won’t see game action until February. Canucks coach Travis Green hinted that the timing was right to bring Demko up. “We’ve got some down time, we don’t have a lot of back-to-back games. We can pick and choose when we want to play him, and nothing’s going to be out of ’necessity.’”
Demko’s a Hard-Working Goalie
Not that Demko seems to need much rest himself. The 6-foot-4, 192-pound, 23-year-old goalie was a workhorse for the Comets last season with a 25-13-4 record, a 2.44 goals-against average (GAA) and a .922 save percentage (SV%) in 46 games. This season, although his progress was slowed because he sat nearly two months with a concussion, he had a 8-5-1 record with a .911 SV% and a 2.58 GAA.
In fact, the Canucks have developed Demko quite patiently. In fact, too patiently for his liking, if you read between the lines of his comments. He has played in Utica a relatively long time as 2018-19 is his third season there, and in 107 AHL games, he’s had a 55-35-12 record with three shutouts, a .915 SV% and a 2.56 GAA.
As Demko suggests, he was ready to move up. “I was down in the AHL for two-and-a-half years. I want to make sure I don’t go back there. I want to be up here and be an impact player.” Green was the Comets’ coach when Demko first turned pro, and he has ultimate faith in his prodigy. “I believe in him. I think he’s going to be a good goalie in the league. This is the right time to bring him up, so I’m happy that we made the move.”
Demko’s Mental Ups and Downs
Demko credits the veterans he hung around with in Utica for helping him prepare to play in the NHL. He noted that playing in the NHL was a part of the players’ conversations as they traveled by bus from game to game in the AHL. When I read Demko’s comments about the mental aspects of the game, I found them interesting. Here are some of his insights and revelations:
“I just don’t feel like being grumpy about the situation is going to help anyone.”
“You can see some guys are a little bit negative about their situation and things don’t really work out for them. That’s something I’ve been working on a lot.”
“A big part of pro hockey is not getting pushed too far one way or another.” Adding, “There were times where I was maybe thinking I wasn’t as good as people were saying or vice versa. That’s just the ebbs and flows of pro hockey.”
“Last year when I got my first (NHL) game, I felt like I was maybe ready to get a look. Coming into this season, I just wasn’t really sure what was going to happen.”
(From “Thatcher Demko looking to make the most of his chance with Canucks”, The National Post, 1/6/19)
My PhD is not in psychology, but I don’t think it’s difficult to read between the lines to see that Demko’s emotions might be up-and-down and that he hopes to become more mentally balanced in his game. His comments about working hard not to be “grumpy,” noticing his teammates “negativity,” worrying about his confidence and feeling discouraged when he wasn’t on Vancouver’s roster to open the season suggest that the mental aspect of his game is something he is working on.
That makes especially good sense for a goalie,whose on-ice emotions must fluctuate from enthusiastic elation to depressing discouragement. I’m guessing it takes a combination of mental toughness and physical skills to become an elite NHL goalie.
In the short-term, look for Demko to get his first NHL start sometime soon. In reading about him for this post, one site noted that he would soon have his NHL debut. In fact, Demko played one game last season – an overtime win in April against the Columbus Blue Jackets. In that game, he made 30 saves in a 5-4 victory.
But, as noted, Markstrom has settled into things as the Canucks’ goaltender, and he will likely stay in goal at least for this season. The 28-year-old Swede almost literally carried the team through December with an 8-1-0 record, a .943 SV% and a 1.77 GAA. And, after the team’s miserable November, he helped put them back in the playoff race. Seems to me you don’t pull a goalie who’s a key to your team’s success.