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Markstrom's injury puts pressure on Demko to show he can shine in an NHL crease

Thatcher Demko has the best opportunity of his young career to prove he can be the Canucks' long-term starter. No pressure, but his play could dictate Vancouver's playoff future.

Depending on who you ask, the Vancouver Canucks either aced the trade deadline or fell flat on their face. There's seemingly nothing in between. Canucks GM Jim Benning didn't make any big buys Monday, but he also didn't send any notable pieces out the door, electing instead to keep the core intact and set his sights on the post-season.

By the time the deadline was through, though, Monday's inaction was a secondary story in Vancouver. Instead, the headline news was an inopportune knee injury suffered by goaltender Jacob Markstrom that could sideline him for upwards of three weeks. And the timing couldn't be worse. While the Canucks currently sit in the final playoff spot in the Pacific with a two-point advantage over the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes and a couple games in hand on both clubs, the battle is tight with the stretch run set to begin. 

That's what makes losing Markstrom such a blow. Statistically, he has been splendid. Among the 56 goalies with at least 20 starts this season, Markstrom’s goals-saved above average at 5-on-5 sits in a respectable 14th (6.9) and his save percentage under the same parameters ranks 18th (.925), putting him only a few points shy of cracking the top 10. Though he might not be the first choice, Markstrom has to be on the short list of Canucks MVPs. Playing behind star rookie Quinn Hughes and the inspired play of forwards such as Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, Markstrom has been pivotal in helping Vancouver to their spot in the standings.

But now it's going to be Thatcher Demko who is going to have to keep them there. And though he hasn't had a chance to truly showcase himself at the NHL level, with Markstrom sidelined, the timing has never been better for Demko to prove he's the goaltender of the future in Vancouver.

Selected 36th overall by the Canucks in 2014, Demko has taken his time to get to the NHL, first finishing up his time at Boston College, where he was named top NCAA goaltender in 2015-16, and spending three campaigns in the AHL before making the full-time move to Vancouver this season. He's been equal to the task as a backup netminder throughout the campaign, too. But assuming Markstrom is sidelined for a few weeks, all of the weight is about to be placed upon the shoulders of a goaltender who has played just seven games since Jan. 1 and has only started consecutive games on three occasions this season. It's new territory for the 24-year-old. And though Louis Domingue was acquired Monday from the New Jersey Devils to help bolster the Canucks' crease, it's Demko who has the keys to the crease.

When compared to Markstrom statistically, the numbers aren't glowing. Demko is more a mid-pack keeper. Among the aforementioned cluster of 56 goaltenders, Demko's minus-1.30 GSAA and .916 SP at 5-on-5 both rank 32nd, the latter nine back of Markstrom. Digging a little deeper, though, there's a suggestion Demko is ready for the challenge. He has only played in 20 games this season, but his 66.7 quality starts percentage is sixth among goalies with at least that many starts. That puts him among Vezina Trophy contenders such as Tuukka Rask and Tristan Jarry. That's saying something. 

Of course, Demko has room to boost his numbers, and there's no time like the present. Markstrom, 30, is set to hit the open market and is easily one of the most desirable pending unrestricted free agent goaltenders. Ideally, the Canucks would retain the Markstrom-Demko duo, but with the expansion draft on the horizon, signing Markstrom past next season would leave one netminder or the other vulnerable come the Seattle expansion draft. This is Demko's opportunity to make Vancouver's decision for them and potentially take the post-season starter selection out of coach Travis Green's hands. If Demko plays well enough, even channels his inner Jordan Binnington and helps the Canucks climb the Western Conference standings, Markstrom might have a tough time stealing the crease back.

This is a challenging situation for the Canucks and not the circumstances under which they wanted to hand Demko the reins. But he has them as a result of Markstrom's injury. And if Demko wants to stake his claim to the blue paint in Vancouver, this is his chance to do so.

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