VANCOUVER – We’ve seen “Bubble” Demko. Now the Vancouver Canucks are hoping to see Bubble Highmore.
Goalie Thatcher Demko launched himself into this breakthrough season with a brilliant three-game cameo in the playoff bubble in Edmonton last summer. That performance convinced the Canucks they could afford to let starting goalie Jacob Markstrom leave in free agency last fall. And when Demko seized the No. 1 job this season and proved September was not a fluke, the team rewarded him with a five-year, $25-million-US contract extension.
By National Hockey League standards, Matthew Highmore will probably never be rich. But he’d like a career, and channelling the best parts of his own nine-game run with the Chicago Blackhawks in the Edmonton bubble could help him earn one with the Vancouver Canucks.
Playing on Chicago’s energy line with Ryan Carpenter and David Kampf, the speedy Highmore co-led the Blackhawks with three even-strength playoff goals sprinkled among his 14 hits over the nine playoff games. That rare glimpse of offence from Highmore is partly why the Canucks took a chance on him at Monday’s trade deadline when Vancouver handed Adam Gaudette to Chicago.
“I thought I took a good step towards being a player that I want to be,” Highmore, an undrafted 25-year-old, said Tuesday on Zoom during Day 1 of his week-long travel quarantine in Vancouver. “A lot of it was keeping my game simple, playing hard and feeling comfortable in the league. That was kind of the next step for me. I felt I was just more mature and certainly more ready to play, just being comfortable in the situation.”
He probably hasn’t felt very comfortable lately. Highmore was a healthy scratch in nine of his final 12 games with the Blackhawks, and left Chicago with just two assists in 24 games this season while averaging 8:50 of ice time. The winger from Halifax hasn’t scored since a second-round series goal against the Vegas Golden Knights in August.
But the Canucks saw enough in Highmore to select him over other “prospects” offered by the Blackhawks when Vancouver general manager Jim Benning ended his months-long search for a landing spot for Gaudette, the 24-year-old who scored 33 points last season but has just four goals and three assists in 33 games this year.
Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman said on an episode of the 31 Thoughts podcast Tuesday that Gaudette had become unhappy in Vancouver, something Benning hinted at Monday when he explained the trade as a fresh start for Gaudette and the “right time for both parties to move on.”
“I think Gaudette was ready to go,” Friedman said. “I think he felt his career was stagnating in Vancouver and he was ready to move on, and I think the Canucks were obviously ready to accommodate him and they did.”
Although the Canucks started trade calls on Gaudette in the off-season after he was unhappy about being healthy-scratched in seven of Vancouver’s 17 playoff games and being moved back to the wing from centre, Friedman said the player’s status as Patient Zero in Vancouver’s current COVID-19 crisis was a contributing factor to the trade.
“I just think that this whole last couple of weeks has put an enormous strain on the franchise,” Friedman said. “I just look at it and it’s hard to believe the past couple of weeks didn’t accelerate an already unhappy player’s departure.”
Neither Highmore nor defenceman Madison Bowey, and other fringe player Benning acquired Monday in a separate deal with the Blackhawks, is unhappy. Quite the opposite.
Handed by the NHL a post-COVID-19 schedule of 19 games in 31 days with six back-to-backs, starting Friday, the Canucks are going to need all the fully healthy, enthusiastic players they can find. Bowey and Highmore are going to get a chance to play.
Highmore split the last three seasons between the NHL and American League.
Despite what appeared to be a solid season last year in Detroit, where Bowey had 17 points and averaged 17:54 of ice time over 53 games, the defenceman signed as a free agent with the Blackhawks and has spent nearly all of this year practising on Chicago’s taxi squad. Bowey has played just two NHL and two AHL games this season.
“It was challenging mentally,” Bowey, a former second-round pick of the Washington Capitals, told reporters during a stopover in Dallas on his way to Vancouver. “But in the end, that just... makes you stronger, makes you more prepared and more excited to get that good opportunity. That's what's happening here and I'm very, very thrilled and looking forward to it.
“I've been healthy. I've been fortunate enough to not come down with a virus since it came out. I'm very fresh, obviously, only playing four games this year. I feel great, my body feels great and I'm just looking forward to that -- using all that energy and that that built-up emotion.”
Neither player expressed concern about joining the Canucks as they emerge this week from their COVID-19 shutdown.
“What has kind of transpired here is terrible,” Highmore said. “I feel so bad for the guys. It's one of those things that throughout the season, we're just going to have to kind of adapt through it. With all the health and safety protocols, I feel very safe coming into this environment.
“It's been a crazy year. I think every team has had to adapt to different scenarios. Certainly 19 games and 30-odd days is going to be a challenge, but it's just kind of the way the season has went for every team. You just kind of ride with the ebbs and flows.”