VANCOUVER — Thatcher Demko is trying to tamp down growing expectations after his hot December put him into the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.
“We haven’t even played half the games yet, so I guess we can just cool it on that a little bit,” the Vancouver Canucks goalie said last week. “A lot more games to play and a lot of work to do.”
Whether he likes it or not, Demko is being mentioned as a contender for the Vezina, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL each season as voted by the 32 general managers.
He was 7-1-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and one shutout in December to earn NHL Third Star honors for the month. The 26-year-old hasn’t lost since Bruce Boudreau replaced Travis Green as coach Dec. 5, going 7-0-0 with a 1.40 GAA and .955 save percentage; prior to that, he was 8-11-1 with a 2.97 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
“As good I’ve had at that position ever when I coached,” was how Boudreau described Demko and defenseman Quinn Hughes, another key player in Vancouver’s turnaround (eight assists, plus-6 in nine games under Boudreau). The Canucks (16-15-3) are 8-0-1 since the coaching change after starting the season 8-15-2.
Boudreau compared Demko to two goalies he worked with in previous stops as an NHL coach: Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals and John Gibson with the Anaheim Ducks. Holtby won the Vezina in 2015-16, his third season as the Capitals’ No. 1 goalie. Boudreau coached him for two seasons (2010-12) before coaching Gibson for three seasons (2013-16).
Demko is in his first full season as the No. 1 in Vancouver. He took the job from Holtby last season after it was expected that they’d share it.
“He’s going to be so good,” Holtby, who signed with the Dallas Stars as a free agent July 28, said earlier this season. “Already is.”
Demko was projected to be a No. 1 goalie when the Canucks selected him in the second round (No. 36) of the 2014 NHL Draft. He was 13-10-2 with a 3.06 GAA and a .905 save percentage in 27 games (25 starts) as the backup to Jacob Markstrom in his first full NHL season in 2019-20, but showed during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs how high his ceiling might be.
Replacing the injured Markstrom in the Western Conference Second Round against the Vegas Golden Knights, Demko allowed two goals on 125 shots in the final three games — his first three NHL postseason starts — for a .984 save percentage, though the Canucks lost the series in seven games.
That performance earned him the nickname Bubble Demko because the 2020 playoffs were played in a controlled environment without fans due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. He said he is prouder of what he is doing now.
“I’m a little sick of people talking about the Bubble Demko thing,” he said. “It was awesome, but it was just three games, and I knew I had a lot more to prove. Last year, I felt like I flirted with it a little bit, and this year I really wanted to come in and just nail down that consistency and prove I could do it on a nightly basis.”
Demko is 15-11-1 in 27 starts this season, and his .920 save percentage is 10th among goalies who have played at least 15 games. That may not jump out as worthy of a potential Vezina finalist, but much like his .915 save percentage last season, some of Demko’s statistics have been suppressed by the amount of high-quality scoring chances Vancouver allowed under Green.
If those chances continue to be reduced with the Canucks spending more time at the other end of the rink under Boudreau, and Demko’s statistical floor remains raised, then the impact teammates have already noted should be easier for others to see.
Adapting to what Demko called a “different vibe” under Boudreau is also part of the learning curve. Goalies won’t complain about an easier workload, but adjusting to it isn’t always simple.
“We’ve all seen him steal games, but what about the game where he’s less busy and less acrobatic?” Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark said. “Can he manage a game where he’s just making routine stops and not make mistakes? That can be a tough challenge. Some goalies excel in higher-shot games and some excel in lower-shot games, but to be elite and put together a 60-plus-game resume worthy of being one of the top goalies in the NHL, you have to be able to win all kinds of different games, and that’s an area [where] he’s shown continued improvement.”
Clark, who was the Columbus Blue Jackets goaltending coach when current Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovksy won the Vezina twice with Columbus (2013, 2017), continues to work with Demko to improve on technique for a position that keeps evolving. But Clark said Demko has already put a lot of his foundational work “in the rearview mirror.”
Beyond keeping those structural technical elements sharp, a lot of the work ahead will be between the ears. That shouldn’t be a problem for Demko, who was a psychology major at Boston College.
“We have a ceiling on our physical capacities,” Demko said. “Everyone is talented in this league, so it’s got to be something else that separates guys and I think the mental side is the thing that does that. There’s no ceiling on mental capacity, so you can always keep building in that regard, and the great goalies in the League, that’s what they’re always preaching too. It’s all up top.”
Time will tell if it’s enough to put Demko at the top at the end of the season, and beyond.
“We know he’s capable of it,” Clark said. “We’ve all seen those elite performances. But to be in the air of the greats, there’s a longevity required performing at that level. I believe he has that in him.
“I watch how he conducts himself daily, his work habits, personal discipline, competitiveness, all the intangible prerequisites for that level, he possesses. Now it’s a matter of time.”