VANCOUVER – Until he walked on water over four brilliant September days in the playoffs, Thatcher Demko’s previous chance to prove how good he could be for the Vancouver Canucks came last February when starting goalie Jacob Markstrom injured his knee the first time.
In the second game of his chance of a lifetime, Demko surrendered two goals in the first eight minutes of a 5-2 road loss to the dismal Ottawa Senators. Two nights later, the 24-year-old National Hockey League rookie moved to the big stage at the centre of the universe, was beaten twice in the first seven minutes and lost 4-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada.
So, yeah, Demko had something to prove when he was forced to take over from Markstrom, injured again, before Game 5 of Vancouver’s playoff battle in Edmonton against the Vegas Golden Knights.
With a 3-1 series lead, the Knights were a game away from advancing to the Western Conference final. Demko made them play three. But he allowed another two goals – in 180 minutes and 123 shots.
“I think that’s kind of like life,” Demko, deprived of season-ending interviews in the year of the coronavirus, told Sportsnet this week. “I completely agree with you that those couple of games, Ottawa and Toronto, I struggled a little bit. I knew that was a big opportunity for me. It was a mental maturity thing the first time Marky got hurt.
“When that second opportunity came around in the playoffs, it was like: OK, I’ve been in this situation before. I learned a ton the first time around and now these games are even bigger. I was able to kind of settle in and just be a lot more confident in myself after learning from my failures. I knew the second time around, I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes.”
If those three games in Edmonton didn’t quite change everything for Demko, the remake of the landscape was completed on Oct. 9 when Markstrom signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames.
Demko proved during the summer Stanley Cup playoffs that he could perform under pressure. Now he needs to show he can start in the NHL, too.
The Canucks transformed the last two seasons under the seismic influence of newcomers Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, Calder Trophy winner and runnerup, respectively.
The biggest change on the Canucks next season is that Demko, groomed to be a starter since general manager Jim Benning drafted him near the top of the second round in 2014, has a chance to replace Markstrom in a new goaltending tandem with former Stanley Cup winner Braden Holtby.
“I’ve been able to reflect a ton on it,” Demko said of his scene-stealing cameo role in the playoffs. “You can look back and watch the film, which I was able to do. But I think the biggest thing I take away from that was just the mental step that I took. That’s the thing that’s probably the biggest adjustment going through your career, having that mentality, creating that confidence and sustaining that confidence. For me, it was kind of like the stars aligned.
“I’d had some opportunities that maybe didn’t go great, and I was able to learn from those. The physical side of things and the mental side of things kind of lined up for me, and it definitely reinforced where I want to go with my career. The game, it felt easy, it felt fun. Obviously, I wanted to win Game 7. But now that some time has passed, I’m able to look back and really enjoy how fun that was for me. Just having that confidence and kind of proving to myself that I can do it – three games in four nights – yeah, it was definitely a big step.”
The next one came five weeks later when Markstrom, who grew into an excellent NHL starter with the Canucks, signed a six-year, $36-million-US contract with the Flames that Vancouver wouldn’t match.
Markstrom and Demko were friends as well as goaltending partners.
“I woke up on free-agent day and Marky asked me to call him,” Demko recalled. “I think I got that text at 3:00 a.m. because he was back in Sweden. I called him right away, and I think it might have been right when he was finalizing his deal in Calgary because he didn’t answer. All of a sudden, my agent texted me and let me know that Marky had moved on. It was weird. It was something everyone knew was a possibility but you don’t really feel the weight of it until it happens.
“You can try to prepare yourself as best as you can, but when you get that text, it’s tough. Friendship-wise, he’s been my goalie partner ever since I got up here. It’s definitely tough but, obviously, a great opportunity now.”
Demko is so focused on getting ready for next season he has spent most of the fall training in Vancouver rather than seeing sunshine and family back home in San Diego. The six-foot-four netminder said he wanted to get his cross-border quarantine completed early so whenever training camp starts, he’ll be unhindered in his preparation.
“He’s a hard-working kid that wants to be really good,” Benning said. “With goalies, we understand it takes longer to develop. From a development standpoint, we’ve tried to do everything the right way with him. And we feel he’s now knocking on the door to be a No. 1 goalie in the league.”
Did those three playoff games change the timeline?
“I think it showed not only me, but it showed his teammates and coaches, our fans and the media, that he is the guy we thought he could turn out to be,” Benning said. “We believed that’s what he was capable of, but to actually see it for three games and for everybody else to see it, I think it was fantastic.”
Demko has been training and skating with a handful of teammates, including Pettersson. He is doing extra sessions with goaltending coach Ian Clark. Demko knows he has to improve. His .985 save percentage in the playoffs came after a regular-season save rate of .905.
That was a solid first full NHL season for Demko, but .905 is a long way from making you a starter. Including the second half of the 2018-19 season, he has started 34 NHL games. Demko is going into the final year of a bargain contract ($1.05-million cap hit), and there is a Seattle expansion draft looming.
“I think last year was a good year for me to go through some ups and downs and learn a little bit more about what it’s like to be (in the NHL) full time,” he said. “I remember my first year in Utica (in the American League) was a really similar year, and I was able to come back in my second year after learning so much and applying things I’d picked up. I feel really confident going into this year. I’m right where I want to be in my career right now.
“I think there’s a lot on the table and I’m just really excited to get the opportunity take that next step. I want to be in Vancouver as long as I can. I want to be the guy. This is the next step in that direction.”