Vancouver Canucks: Will Thatcher Demko ever become a starting goaltender?

ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 06: Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (35) during a NHL game between the Vancouver Canucks and the St. Louis Blues on April 06, 2019, at Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - APRIL 06: Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko (35) during a NHL game between the Vancouver Canucks and the St. Louis Blues on April 06, 2019, at Enterprise Center, St. Louis, Mo. (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Jacob Markstrom is the starting goalie for the Vancouver Canucks, but can Thatcher Demko eventually take over as the lead starter?

While it’s proven that Jacob Markstrom is the lead goalie for the Vancouver Canucks heading into this season, time could very well change that. Thatcher Demko has continued to show that with more responsibility, the hype that surrounded him from an early age may be well earned.

Through the last half of the 2018-19 season, the 29 year-old Markstrom hit another level in the Canucks crease. Starting with a dominant 8-1-0 month of December, in which he posted a .943 save percentage and 1.66 goals against average, Markstrom cemented himself as not just the No. 1 goaltender — but a top-10 goalie in the NHL (see: Vezina voting).

While Markstrom’s role with the team is by no means in doubt heading into this season, there are three very important words that simply have not been talked about enough in regards to the Swede:

Unrestricted free agency.

The upcoming 2019-20 season will be the final season Markstrom plays under the three-year, $11 million deal he signed in July 2016. While re-signing Markstrom may be in the best interest for the Canucks — particularly after the strong year he put up — things become a little more complicated when considering the implications a long-term extension will have.

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A starting point for Markstrom’s next contract likely begins with a long-term deal in the $6 million per year range. With the all expected rising cap ceiling in a few years this may be a non-issue, but there is no guarantee of that reality.

Thus, it may be in Vancouver’s best interest to withhold from committing a high dollar amount to a player they may feel can be internally replaced.

The upcoming 2021 Seattle expansion draft also presents an intriguing fork in the road, as it limits the team in protecting just one goaltender.

A long-term deal with Markstrom would effectively shut the door on 23-year-old Thatcher Demko –the backup goaltender and once highly touted prospect goaltender — from ever truly having an opportunity to seize the starting job.

David Quadrelli’s ‘How bad is it’ series recently took a deep dive into the current Canucks goaltending. In it, he outlined how the recent breakout season from Markstrom — along with a full season of Demko as the team’s backup — puts the position in a great spot.

Who is Thatcher Demko?

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Demko quickly established himself as a top prospect leading up to the 2014 NHL draft. In the year prior to to the draft, Demko’s .919 save percentage with Boston College eclipsed NHLer’s Cory Schneider (2005) and Jimmy Howard’s (2003) all-time save percentages for an under-19 goaltender.

Despite being passed over through the first round the Canucks made Demko the first goalie selected, nabbing him 36th overall in the second  round.

The 6-foot-4 Demko almost immediately rewarded Vancouver by posting an impressive 19-13-3 record for the Eagles with a 2.19 goals against average and .925 save percentage, in the process representing the United States at the World Junior Championships. The best was yet to come, as he followed with an even more impressive year in 2015-16.

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After a record-breaking stretch of six shutouts in seven games, Demko concluded the 2015-16 season with one of the most dominant seasons by an NCAA goaltender. Through 39 games in his final college season Demko posted a 27-8-4 record, along with a 1.88 GAA and .935 save percentage. His 10 shutouts that season were tied with Ryan Miller for second all-time in the NCAA.

Demko has continued that success into pro hockey. He backstopped the North Division in the 2018 AHL All-Star Game, while getting his first taste with the Canucks in earning a 5-4 overtime win in a March 31, 2018 call-up against the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the audition was far from perfect, he gave Canucks fans reasons for optimism.

After the Canucks offloaded Anders Nilsson to the Ottawa Senators this past season, Demko got a more prolonged taste of NHL action. Through a limited run of nine appearances, he posted four wins.

Throughout last season, there were numerous rumblings the team was dangling Demko as a possible trade chip. While these rumours may have simply been just that, there also could have been some truth to the news as the team became convinced in Markstrom.

Thatcher Demko – A comparison

Wherever you stand on Demkos role with the team moving forward, in comparing his development to other goaltenders across the league it is no wonder why many fans are reluctant to the idea of trading him.

Former Canuck and fellow American, the aforementioned Ryan Miller, is probably the most comparable NHL goaltender when it comes to Thatcher Demko’s development thus far.

Miller shone for Michigan State University in his three years following his selection in the 1999 NHL draft. Upon concluding his dominant third and final season with the Spartans, Miller still underwent three seasons of grooming in the AHL, much like Demko. It was not until six years after his draft Miller became a full-time NHL goaltender.

Since then, Miller’s won a Vezina Trophy (2010) to go along with becoming the winningest American goaltender in NHL history.

Where does that take us now?

By no means am I implying Demko is the second coming of Ryan Miller, but it’s worth noting that a goaltender’s development does take relatively longer as opposed to other positions. Just look at how Markstrom recently had a career year at the age of 29.

If Demko can post even remotely similar numbers as Markstrom this season, then management may be forced to instead commit to the much younger and cheaper Demko that’s oozing with potential.

This season will be pivotal for each Canuck goaltender to solidify their future with the club. For Markstrom, it will be one final chance to silence any remaining critics and prove he has what it takes to lead this team for the foreseeable future.

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For Demko, the year will be crucial to prove to this market that he can turn that potential into a reality to become a starting goaltender in the NHL. Oh, and don’t sleep on that Michael DiPietro kid.