NHL Rookie Notebook: Demko a crucial part of Canucks’ youth surge

Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks. (Ben Nelms/CP)

Over the last few years, we’ve seen some incredible performances from rookie goaltenders.

The story of last season revolved around Jordan Binnington’s rise from the depths of the St. Louis Blues organization to the top of the league as a Stanley Cup champion. Three years before that, it was a Matt Murray who stepped up and took over as starter to take the Penguins all the way to the Stanley Cup as a rookie — twice.

So far this season, we’ve seen a dozen rookie netminders start in net at least once for their respective clubs, with a handful of interesting cases.

The New No. 1: Mackenzie Blackwood, New Jersey Devils

Blackwood, 22, isn’t a new face for Devils fans — he started 21 games and appeared in 23 last year, but is still a rookie considering he fell just shy of the 25-game mark.

In fact, there was a short period of time at the turn of the calendar last season that we thought Blackwood might be the best rookie goaltending story of 2018-19 — that was before some guy named Jordan Binnington made his presence known, of course.

Blackwood got his first taste of NHL action last December when he stepped in for the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and played well enough to get his debut start one game later against the Columbus Blue Jackets — a 2-1 loss that saw the young goalie stop 36-of-38 shots and give a little hope to a team struggling in the puck-stopping department. Blackwood went on to record wins in each of his next three starts, including back-to-back shutouts to close out 2018. He finished the season with a 10-10 record with a 2.61 goals against average and .918 save percentage, ranking him second to Binnington in both categories among rookies with 20-plus games.

With more and more teams using the 1A-1B approach to goaltending — think Bruins, Islanders, and Blackhawks, to name a few — it looked like the Devils could approach the 2019-20 with that strategy between Cory Schneider and Blackwood after Keith Kinkaid’s departure back in February. That would allow Schneider, who has dealt with injury upon injury over the past few seasons, the opportunity to regain form (and hopefully his health) without the heavy workload of a true No. 1. A poor start to the season and another injury scare indicated that wouldn’t happen, and the veteran’s demotion to the AHL in November made it clear that this crease belongs to Blackwood now.

The Tandem Candidate: Thatcher Demko, Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks have a pretty exciting youth surge going right now, and that extends to their crease with Demko.

We got a glimpse of what the 23-year-old Californian is capable of during a promising eight-start stint with the Canucks last year that saw him go 4-3-1 and post a 2.81 goals-against average with a .913 save percentage. So far this season, he’s posted a GAA (2.83) and SV% (.912) almost identical to last year’s numbers.

He’s also provided us with some pretty great saves (while sporting some pretty sweet pads), with a nod to former Canuck Kirk McLean on both counts:

Though the starts still favour veteran Jacob Markstrom, Demko has filled in admirably in Markstrom’s absence — whether due to injury, rest, or during recent personal time away from the team.

Should Markstrom re-sign with the Canucks, this looks like it could be a strong 1A-1B situation for the Canucks considering Demko’s team-friendly $1.05-million cap hit this year and next.

The Challenger: Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals

Samsonov arrived onto the NHL scene this year with lofty expectations, and it’s safe to say he’s lived up to all of them. The 22-year-old Russian has been the projected next man up over the past four years since Washington selected him 22nd overall in 2015, and now that he’s in the NHL, he’s about to force some big decisions thanks to his excellent play.

Samsonov’s situation is what rookie goalies must dream of: He’s getting enough playing time to show what’s got while learning from a Cup champion, with the prospect of taking over the No. 1 spot a real possibility without forcing him into the spotlight too soon. And, in his case, the young Russian is surrounded by other Russian stars to help ease him into his new surroundings that can prove isolating for some players coming over to North America.

His numbers, meanwhile, are what cap-strapped contenders dream of: 2.42 GAA, .917 SV%, and 7-2-1 record in nine starts and 10 appearances with another year still on his entry-level deal.

Washington still has a clear No. 1 in Braden Holtby, but the performance of his rookie backup has raised more than a few questions about the veteran’s future with the club. Holtby, a pending UFA, has rebounded nicely from a few early-season stumbles and currently leads the league in wins (14). The Capitals are barreling towards quite the cap crunch, which no doubt complicates things for Holtby — as does the youngster putting up impressive numbers behind him.

Complicating matters is the looming threat every NHL GM must now factor into decisions: the upcoming Seattle expansion draft in June 2021, which saddles executives with tough decisions about which goalie (just one!) they protect. Surely Seattle is watching Washington closely this year, considering their dual strength they’ve got in net.

The Learning-on-the-Fly Guy: Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets

Ready or not, Merzlikins was thrust into the big show this year following the departure of Bobrovsky. Joonas Korpisalo’s backup hasn’t fared as well as some of his netminding peers, having yet to win a game in the NHL through seven appearances (six starts). His 0-3-3 record with a subpar 3.34 GAA and .895 SV% hasn’t exactly made for the warmest of NHL welcomes for the rookie, but growing pains were expected. He’s put up great numbers (1.52 GAA, .949 SV%) in two AHL starts indicates his NHL success is coming.

Regardless of his struggles in the win-loss column, he’s already showing he’s role model material:

Speaking of Bobrovsky…

The New No. 2s: Sam Montembeault & Chris Driedger, Florida Panthers

Unlike the others on this list, the leader of the Florida Panthers’ crease is really quite clear for the foreseeable future: it’s Sergei Bobrovsky’s job. But that’s not stopping a pair of rookies from stealing some starts from the veteran, especially during a rough patch that has the No. 1 sporting a 3.48 goals against average and .884 save percentage.

Sam Montembeault started the season as Sergei Bobrovsky’s backup, but was sent down to the club’s AHL affiliate after a lack of playing time (and lacklustre play in that time) with the big club. He’ll see more game action in the minors, which could very well translate to more NHL time later this season. The 23-year-old started strong with the Panthers, letting in just four goals on 55 shots through his first two starts, but didn’t fare so well in the next three — 15 goals against on 90 shots. Florida’s defence is certainly to blame for some of this, but it became clear Montembeault would see more action (and more success) back in the AHL for now.

In his place, the Panthers called up Chris Driedger. At 25, Driedger had appeared in just three NHL games — one per season with the Ottawa Senators between 2014 and 2017 — and had never started before getting the nod with the Panthers following an excellent early-season stint with the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.

Turns out, it was worth the wait — the Winnipeg native saved all 27 shots against the Nashville Predators for his first career shutout in his first career start. His second didn’t go quite as well (three goals on 25 shots), but his presence in net, as well as Montembeault’s strong potential, gives Florida a little bit of flexibility as Bobrovsky works through his hurdles and bodes well for the future of Florida’s blue paint.

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