For most of the season, the Vezina conversation has been a two-horse race between Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights.
It’s a three-horse race now and the new entry is galloping his way to the front of the pack.
Thatcher Demko had another strong performance Friday night in a 3-2 Vancouver Canucks win over the Montreal Canadiens. Demko stopped 29 of the 31 shots he faced with just over half those shots coming from the high-danger slot area. As has been the case for most Canucks wins of late, you could argue Demko was the main reason Vancouver finished with two points. His breakaway save on Josh Anderson in overtime came just seconds before J.T. Miller scored the game-winning goal.
Demko has been the best goalie in the NHL over the past month and it’s not particularly close.
He’s not the league leader in wins, goals-against average or save percentage in that time, but don’t let that fool you.
What tells the story of how great Demko has been is a statistic called goals saved above expected. Unlike save percentage, this stat accounts for the quality of shots faced, not just the quantity. By looking at the expected goals-against average when a particular goalie is in net and comparing that to his actual goals-against average, you can see how many goals a goalie is saving his team. Demko is a country mile ahead of everyone in the past month.
The reason Demko is lapping the field is two-fold. One, his play has been incredible. Two, the Canucks are one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. Demko faces a ton of dangerous chances every game. The saves he is forced to make and has made are not the same type of saves most goalies are tasked with making. Here’s a look at where Vancouver ranks in key performance areas defensively.
This is why comparing Demko’s save percentage to the other two leading candidates for the Vezina Trophy isn’t an apples-to-apples exercise. In Vasilevskiy’s games this season, the expected goals against is 2.45 per 60 minutes. Vegas’ expected goals-against average in Fleury’s games is 2.47. For Demko, it's 3.32.
No goalie has faced a higher expected goals-against average this season.
This is the argument for Demko to be considered for the Vezina Trophy right now. Heck, you could argue he should be the leading candidate. The Canucks wouldn’t be one point back of a playoff spot in the North Division without him -- they might not be anywhere close.
Demko ranks ninth in wins, 26th in goals-against average, and 12th in save percentage this season. Good, but not great numbers. That’s the problem with traditional measures when it comes to goaltending. None of those stats, so often relied upon to measure how well a goalie has played, show the one thing that makes Demko’s Vezina case such a compelling one. Shot quality.
Overall, Demko ranks first in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes this season. Vasilevskiy and Fleury round out the top-3.
When it comes to determining who the best goalie in the league is in any given season, one statistic will never capture the whole story. Demko leading in this metric above, as important as it is in evaluating a goalie’s performance, doesn’t mean he should automatically be the front runner for the Vezina Trophy. However, it does shine a light on how impressive his play has been given the barrage of difficult shots that come his way on a nightly basis.
There is still plenty of hockey to be played, but one thing is clear: Demko has earned a spot in the discussion for best goalie in the NHL right now. Three Canadian team goalies have won the Vezina Trophy in the salary cap era -- Miikka Kiprusoff in 2006, Carey Price in 2015 and Connor Hellebuyck last season.
If Demko can maintain his excellent play for the rest of the season, he could become the fourth.