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Thatcher Demko Christens Canucks Crease Right on Time

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The progresssion of other NHL goalies shows that Demko is on the right path, now that he’s in hockey’s best league.

NHL: Preseason-Calgary Flames at Vancouver Canucks
Thatcher Demko is finally about to embark on his NHL career after only one career start to this point. It starts Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres.
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Elias Pettersson might still be injured, but there’s another reason to get hyped about tonight’s matchup against the Buffalo Sabres.

Other than the fact that this matchup is a preview of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final (kidding...somewhat), Canucks fans can look forward to Thatcher Demko’s first start tonight in Vancouver.

So far in Demko’s professional career, the San Diego native has logged 107 AHL games and 1 NHL game. Goalies generally need more seasoning in the AHL compared to fowards and defencemen, but the time is now for Demko to become a full-time NHLer

This isn’t controversial, but it’s accurate to say that Demko has played just the right amount of AHL games. Prognosticators are right when they say he has nothing left to gain down there.

Some clamoured for Demko to arrive in Vancouver earlier. Some wanted him to finish the year down in Utica. Both of those points of views have flaws. When you look at how other goalies have successfully developed in the AHL, you’ll notice that Demko’s path is eerily similar.

In fact, Demko can look right down the ice at the other goalie he’ll face tonight, Buffalo’s Linus Ullmark, to see another successful example of developing in the AHL.

Similarities between Ullmark and Demko

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Calgary Flames
Linus Ullmark’s progression is eerily similar to Demko’s, and the two goaltenders will battle each other tonight.
Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll start with the differences here. Even though Ullmark was drafted two years ahead of Demko in 2012, he’s now just entering his first full NHL campaign. At 25 years old, Ullmark is surprisingly still a rookie, and he’s flourishing in his first season with the Sabres.

Ullmark did play 20 games for the Sabres in 2015-16, and was competent with a .920 save percentage. Despite his success, the organization sent the then 21-year-old back to the farm for some seasoning.

What happened with Ullmark was steady improvement in each season. His save percentages went from .902 to .909 to .922 last season with the Rochester Americans. While he saw some limited NHL action over that time, it was clear that 2018-19 was the time to promote Ullmark to the NHL full-time (not to mention, he was waiver eligible this season).

When teams are bad, and goaltending is mediocre, fans are always hollering for their goaltending prospect to get a shot (sound familiar, Canucks fans?). The same was being said about Ullmark last season as Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson were providing subpar goaltending.

The logic? Why throw your rookie NHL goalie to the wolves, playing behind a basement-dwelling team? The Canucks could have brought up Demko last year, but what was the point? He was progressing fine in the AHL, got his cup of coffee, and has worked towards earning a permanent role in 2019.

By the way, Ullmark logged 127 AHL games compared to Demko’s 107. If Demko wasn’t injured for two months to start the season, those totals would be nearly identical. Ullmark also has a .917 save percentage for the Sabres in 18 games played this season.

Demko Compared to Other NHL Goalies

There were many calling for Demko to arrive in Vancouver earlier than he did, citing someone like Cal Petersen, who had a .924 in Los Angeles despite being a 2013 draft pick.

For the goalies drafted in 2014, there are some stellar prospects, but only Demko, Brandon Halverson (New York Rangers) and Alex Nedeljkovic have played NHL games. For the record, they each have one NHL start as of writing.

For goalies drafted after Demko, here are the three that have NHL starts

  • Adin Hill (Arizona Coyotes, 76th overall in 2015, 17 career games)
  • Mackenzie Blackwood (42nd overall in 2015, 11 career games)
  • Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers, 48th overall in 2016, 11 career games)

For the record, no goalies from the 2013 NHL draft have gone on to become starting goaltenders, and only Juuse Saros in Nashville is an established backup from that group.

All of this is to say, if you’re acting like Demko has finally arrived here, then the expectations need to change. He appears to be arriving at exactly the right time.

It was right to move on from Nilsson while there was a taker. It was also right to bring Demko up based on his AHL progression, and based on the fact that the Canucks aren’t a total disaster anymore.

If you’re shooting high on Demko’s potential in a couple of years, here are some goalies from the 2012 draft that have gone on to become starting goaltenders.

Of course, goaltending is part voodoo, but those are four bonafide NHL starters who were drafted two years ahead of Demko. However, most goalies needed a few seasons before making an impact in the NHL.

Hellebucyk came into the NHL at the same time around Demko, with Demko spending this extra half season in the AHL. Even then, Hellebuyck struggled in his first full season as a starter (the following season) before establishing himself as a starting goaltender.

Andersen was already fast-tracked after being re-drafted in his Draft-plus-two season, making his transition to the NHL easier. Vasilevskiy spent 2.5 seasons after his draft between the KHL and AHL, before developing as a back-up for two seasons. Murray of course is an outlier, with two Stanley Cup wins, after posting remarkable numbers in the AHL (.937 in 72 career games.)

The point being, all of these goalies followed different development paths, but it took most of them each until about age 23 before establishing themselves in the NHL. All that does is signify that the Canucks made the right decision in bringing him up now.

If Canucks fans are lucky, perhaps Demko follows the path of those aforementioned goaltenders, and cements himself as the answer in net for this franchise by 2020.