PENTICTON, B.C. — Despite what Nuke Laloosh and just about every athlete who has ever been interviewed says, it is a challenge to take things one day at a time when your development schedule has been set in years.
Monday wasn’t Thatcher Demko’s day. Just like the Young Stars Classic wasn’t the Vancouver Canucks’ tournament.
The National Hockey League team’s goalie of the future was beaten three times on 13 shots before leaving in the second intermission of what turned out to be a 5-4 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers’ prospects.
But, really, Demko could have posted a 50-save shutout and it wouldn’t have much mattered to his development curve in an organization where management believes he should spend at least two years and, possibly, three developing in the American Hockey League before challenging for an NHL job.
Demko is unique among the elite Canucks prospects going to training camp today in Vancouver in that, barring injuries, it is virtually impossible for the 21-year-old to make the NHL roster this fall.
In July, general manager Jim Benning signed promising Buffalo Sabres free agent Anders Nilsson to a two-year contract to compete for the Canucks starting job with Jacob Markstrom, who is beginning a three-year, $11-million extension. Each is 27 years old.
So Demko, a second-round pick who played last season for the Utica Comets after an outstanding three years at Boston College, must wait. And wait. And probably wait some more.
“You have to have the mindset that you’re making the team,” he insisted. “If I was going in knowing that I’m not going to make the team, then why even go? I’m realistic about what they have in mind for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t do everything I can to show them what I can do.
“I had a really good summer this year. I put on some strength, matured a little bit. I’m just really excited to get to camp and have them compare me to Markstrom and Nilsson as well.”
Asked how he would cope if management told him he won’t get his NHL chance until the 2019-20 season, Demko said: “My first response would be to tell them they’re wrong. It doesn’t matter what people say. There are 1,000 guys on the internet telling me I’m not very good and I’m probably going to be a flop. Everyone has their opinion.”
“I think everything is a time of opportunity. (Montreal Canadiens star) Carey Price could be traded tomorrow. It’s a crazy game; you never know. Every year I want to go to camp, I want to do well. I want to get to the NHL as quickly as possible. I see every camp as an opportunity to try to prove myself a little bit.”
He wasn’t able to prove much in Penticton, although he did win his Friday start, making 18 saves in a 4-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets.
On Monday, Michael Garteig of the East Coast League was the sharpest Canucks goaltender. He was beaten twice on 13 shots in relief of Demko, but made a handful of difficult saves while the Canucks rallied from a two-goal, third-period deficit to force overtime.
Interestingly, it was 18-year-old, third-round draft pick Michael DiPietro who was given the start ahead of Garteig on Sunday, when the Canucks were dumped 6-2 by the Calgary Flames.
Just as the Canucks like the idea of having Demko pushing up from the AHL to put some pressure on Markstrom and Nilsson, Benning drafted DiPietro in June so the organization would have another top goaltending prospect in the pipeline behind Demko.
Granted, there are three and a half years between the double-Ds, so Demko and DiPietro are not exactly competing with each other. DiPietro, an athletic but slightly undersized goalie who won the Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires, will soon return to the Ontario League and is expected to compete in December for a spot on Canada’s world junior team.
The last time the Canucks had a goaltending prospect as sparkling as Demko, Cory Schneider spent three full seasons in the AHL before making the Canucks.
Two years later, Schneider dislodged Roberto Luongo as starter, prompting Luongo’s trade request and one of the great melodramas in Canuck history. Oddly, the saga ended not with the trade of Luongo but the earlier and still unexplained 2013 draft-day dealing of Schneider to the New Jersey Devils for Bo Horvat.
A year later, after Benning replaced Mike Gillis as general manager, the Canucks selected Demko 36th overall and have been grooming him since.
This is only Year 2 of the Demko Project in the AHL. He salvaged an erratic rookie season last February, allowing seven goals during a seven-game stretch while posting a .965 save percentage. The turnaround came after a late-night call from Canucks goaltending coach Dan Cloutier to encourage him.
Demko had lost four straight starts and was floundering for the first time since he went to the United States Hockey League as a 15-year-old backup. He finished his Utica season with a 2.68 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in 45 games.
“I would say that was definitely the lowest I’ve been (in hockey),” Demko recalled. “Honestly, it was all mental. Clouts just called me and said: ‘You’re good enough to play at this level. You’ve just got to stop thinking about certain things.’ I was just overthinking a ton. I wanted to play a perfect game.
“It was a really unrealistic mindset to have.”
So, too, is the idea that Demko could make the Canucks opening-night lineup in October. But for him, the alternatives are unbearable. This is the only mindset he can live with. And he may need to co-exist with it for a while.