The Canucks have signed their top goalie prospect, Thatcher Demko, out of college. When might we see him become an NHLer?
Take a deep breath, Vancouver Canucks fans. Thatcher Demko did not pull a Jimmy Vesey.
Goaltender Demko, 20, officially signed with the team that drafted him Wednesday, as announced by the Canucks. He’s now a professional hockey player and will forego his senior year at Boston College.
The move makes sense for Demko, who has nothing left to prove at the NCAA level. He went 27-8-4 with a 1.88 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and 10 shutouts this season. That latter stat broke a school record set by Canucks alumnus Cory Schneider in 2005-06 and stands as the second-highest total ever for a college goalie in a single season.
Demko helped Boston College reach the Frozen Four and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, a.k.a hockey’s Heisman Trophy. Demko even won the Mike Richter Award as the nation’s top college netminder. He acquitted himself well starting for Team USA at the 2015 world juniors, posting a .934 SP, and he’s cracked USA’s 2016 World Championship roster, following the recent footsteps of Yankee netminders John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck. Demko really needs a new challenge, and turning pro is exactly that.
The Canucks, meanwhile, are thrilled knowing they’ve secured such a crown-jewel youngster. Demko ranks as Vancouver’s No. 1 overall prospect in THN Future Watch 2016, and our panel of NHL team executives and scouts voted Demko 32nd among all NHL prospects. That rates him as the No. 2 overall goalie behind only Washington Capitals draftee Ilya Samsonov. Canucks goaltending consultant Dan Cloutier said he liked Demko’s knowledge, his drive and the head on his shoulders. Demko has the swagger befitting a bell-cow NHL goaltender, and he’s built like one too at 6-foot-4.
So what does the future hold for Demko now that he’s a pro? The path seems pretty clear.
Demko will play for the Utica Comets, the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, next season, as confirmed by team president Trevor Linden. Ryan Miller is under contract one more year at $6 million, and Jacob Markstrom finally made the leap to permanent NHL competence this season, so that goaltending tandem is set for now. There’s little chance the rebuilding Canucks retain Miller after 2016-17, however. He’ll turn 37 that summer, and Markstrom almost surpassed him this season anyway. So the door should open for Demko to crack the Canucks the season after next and form a battery with Markstrom.
Demko should have a nice AHL setup with Utica in 2016-17. This past season’s starter, Joe Cannata, is a 26-year-old unrestricted free agent. Veteran Richard Bachman remains under contract another year and makes an ideal experienced partner for Demko in the Comets crease. Demko will get a chance to play a lot. I spoke with Rollie Melanson, the Vancouver Canucks goalie coach, earlier this season about developing Markstrom’s game, and Melanson shared his philosophy on goalies gaining AHL experience.
“It’s always better to learn from your mistakes at the American League level, and the American League level is probably one of the best leagues in the world, with the travel and being close to the schedule of what the NHL has to offer, having to play sometimes three games in four nights and stuff of that nature,” Melanson said. “I really believe, even at a high talent level, that a year in the minors or close to a year in the minors is good for you. If you can get in 100 games, it would even better. I’m a big believer you can monitor and develop guys at a high level in American League, and when they come to the NHL, they’re going to be that much closer.”
A natural recent model for Demko to follow is Hellebuyck. He was drafted in 2012, two years before Demko, and is likely two years ahead development-wise, though Hellebuyck turned pro after his sophomore NCAA season. Hellebuyck spent an entire year as an AHL starter in 2014-15, appearing in 58 games. This past season he shuttled back and forth between the NHL and AHL, playing 26 and 30 games, respectively. He looks more than ready to stick in the NHL full-time next season if Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff can clear a roster spot somehow. Hellebuyck has a similar build, confidence and pedigree to Demko, so it’s fair to expect a similar development timeline.
Ideally, Demko will wrest the job away from Bachman in Utica next season and earn lots of reps. The bottom line is for Canuck fans not to expect Demko in the NHL at all in 2016-17 barring an injury to Markstrom or Miller. If Vancouver falls out of playoff contention again next spring, a Miller trade at the deadline would be likely, but even then, the organization won’t want to hurry Demko.
“If you rush it, you can put the goaltender in a situation where you stop his development for a couple years, because confidence is still a vital part of goaltending,” said Melanson, who also developed Carey Price in the Montreal Canadiens organization. “You can’t play the position without confidence, and if you put him in a situation to fail before he has a chance to succeed, that can be a really tough road to walk.
“You’ve got to be careful. I’m very protective about my goalies that way, because I want to make sure they understand they’re able to go through the growing pains in the minors, and once you know you’ve dominated that league, we’ll give you a chance to come up and do your thing here.”
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin