The prospect anointed the franchise’s goalie of the future from the day he was drafted in 2014 should finally get a chance this weekend, probably Friday night against the Buffalo Sabres, to start a game as a National Hockey League regular instead of as a tourist up from the minors on a day trip.
As this seminal moment in his life approaches, the 22-year-old from San Diego and Boston College feels, well, calm.
Demko is finishing a degree in applied psychology (with a minor in philosophy) and now we know to what he is applying this psychology.
“I think pressure is a made up thing,” he said Thursday after his umpteenth practice since the Canucks traded Anders Nilsson to Ottawa on Jan. 2 and promoted Demko from the Utica Comets. “Everyone loves to talk about it, but you can’t really put your finger on what it is. It’s really up to the subject to determine whether they feel pressure or not. I don’t feel pressure; I’m just excited to start this new chapter for me.”
We could all use some of Demko’s Zen, especially the Canucks.
Still without brilliant rookie Elias Pettersson, who has been out two weeks with a sprained knee, Vancouver also prepared Thursday for the possibility of playing without its other ace centre, Bo Horvat. The Canucks’ leader suffered a bruised thigh when hit by Zack Kassian late in Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
The team was concerned enough to call up centre Tanner Kero from the American Hockey League, although Canucks coach Travis Green told reporters he expects Horvat to play on Friday.
Pettersson, however, will not. He has been back on the ice for a week but still hasn’t skated through a full-contact practice with the Canucks. The sensational Swede may be able to play Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings or could wait until Vancouver’s final pre-all-star break game next Wednesday against Carolina.
Demko is likely to make his season debut this weekend despite the career-best form of starter Jacob Markstrom, who stopped 28 of 30 Oilers shots Wednesday and is 10-3-2 since November.
The Canucks have a short turnaround at Rogers Arena between Friday night’s game and Sunday’s matinee, and the coaching staff wants to find a start for Demko before Vancouver’s nine-day schedule break at the end of the month. Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to make Demko wait until February to play.
His only NHL game was last March 31 when he stopped 25 of the first 26 shots he faced before allowing three straight late in the third period in what turned out to be a 5-4 overtime win against Columbus.
The game, requested by Demko through his agent because he wanted to know before this season what the NHL looked like, was granted as a reward for the goaltender’s outstanding AHL campaign (.922 save percentage and 25-13-4 record). It was also a reflection of his importance to the Canucks’ future.
“The circumstances were a little different last year, just coming up and getting thrown into the fire, so to speak,” Demko said. “This year, I feel like I’m much more part of the team. Obviously, I’ve been up (in the NHL) a little bit of time now instead of arriving from Utica at 2:30 in the morning, shaking guys’ hands and then going out for warmup. I’m comfortable in the room, even comfortable around the city. It doesn’t feel like something that’s abstract anymore.”
No, it’s going to get real very soon for Demko.
“He just always seems calm and controlled,” Green said. “You like that. (But) I also think he has a very high competitive edge to him, a lot like Marky. Maybe not as outgoing with it, but there’s a fire that burns pretty hot inside him and I think he has the mental makeup to be a goalie in the NHL.”
Green has the advantage of having coached both Markstrom and Demko in the AHL before the bench boss was promoted by the Canucks ahead of last season.
“I’ve liked him from Day 1,” Green said of Demko. “I like his focus, his commitment, wanting to get better. But I’m never going to sit here and say this guy is a bonafide starter. I wouldn’t say that about any player. You’ve got to go out and do it still, and there’s no sense putting those kind of words out there about a player.
“I think he has the ability to be a very good goalie in the NHL. I’ve thought it from the first day I saw him. If we didn’t feel it was his time to be in the NHL, then he wouldn’t be here.”
Green said he doesn’t need to put any more pressure on Demko than what the second-round pick puts on himself. But the goalie, of course, doesn’t believe in pressure.
“I had to learn that (mindset) for sure,” he said. “I definitely felt a lot of pressure through my teenage years. You just kind of mature and when you can take a step back and look at it, it’s a lot easier to put things in perspective. Maybe that’s a good reason to play 2 1/2 years in the American League — to learn for this moment, so I’m not psyching myself out.”