VANCOUVER – It’s not Mike McKenna or Tom Pyatt the Vancouver Canucks are really getting in their trade with the Ottawa Senators, but a clear path for minor-league goaltending star Thatcher Demko to play in the National Hockey League.
Wednesday’s trade was relatively small but has a lot of benefits for the Canucks, who opened a roster spot for Demko by trading backup goalie Anders Nilsson to the Senators, addressed a minor-league need for players and leadership and also added another sixth-round pick for the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.
Requiring waivers to report to the Canucks’ minor-league team in Utica, N.Y., McKenna, a 35-year-old journeyman who has played on an astonishing 20 professional teams, will back up Vancouver starter Jacob Markstrom Wednesday in Ottawa and Thursday in Montreal.
But Demko, a 23-year-old in his third AHL season, should be on the Canucks’ roster when Vancouver’s six-game road trip ends Saturday in Toronto.
Nilsson is expected to back up Wednesday for the Senators, who also acquired Canucks minor-leaguer Darren Archibald in the deal. A 28-year-old who has struggled with an .895 save percentage in his second season with the Canucks, Nilsson is on an expiring contract worth $2.5 million and likely would have left the organization for nothing on July 1.
“One of the things that we wanted to do was make room to get Thatcher up here and get him going,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning told reporters on a conference call. “We’ve been patient with him in his development. He’s been down (in the AHL) for two-and-a-half years now. He’s playing really well down there right now and we just felt the foundation for his game is set. Now it’s time for him to move up here so we can get a look where he’s at versus NHL competition.”
Demko’s only game for the Canucks was a 5-4 overtime win against the Columbus Blue Jackets last March 31. A star at Boston College and in the AHL, Demko was expected to challenge for an NHL roster spot in training camp but struggled in September before sustaining a concussion.
He didn’t play for two months, but is 7-5-0 for the Comets this season with 2.63 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
With the Canucks on an 8-3-1 run and Markstrom in brilliant form – he had an 8-1 record and .943 save rate in December – this is an ideal time for the organization to incorporate Demko, who Benning picked in the second round of the 2014 draft.
Demko doesn’t need to carry the Canucks; he needs only to be better than Nilsson was this season. He’ll get a chance to play periodically for coach Travis Green and the Canucks will have a clearer idea about their goaltending for next season.
Arizona Coyotes goalie Adin Hill, the New Jersey Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood and Los Angeles Kings’ Cal Petersen are all AHL goalies, comparable to Demko, who have succeeded in the NHL this season when promoted from the minors.
“I think he sees now Blackwood make the jump in New Jersey and Petersen make the jump in L.A.,” Benning said of Demko. “Knowing him and how competitive he is as a kid and as a player, I think he wants to try to take that next step and see where he’s at.”
Pyatt, 31, reports directly to Utica, where McKenna will soon join him. The Comets need a veteran goalie after Richard Bachman suffered an Achilles tendon injury on Dec. 22. Benning said today that Bachman will miss the rest of the season.
The GM said he is “exploring options” on another roster move as Canucks centre Brandon Sutter, out since dislocating his shoulder on Oct. 29, nears his return from injury. That could mean another trade or a straight demotion via waivers — likely extra defenceman Alex Biega or disappointing forward Tim Schaller.