Canucks’ Thatcher Demko determined to reach new level after breakthrough season

Vancouver Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko says he's happy that he was able to become starter last season, but that's not good enough any more, now he's setting his sights on becoming an elite goalie in the NHL.

VANCOUVER – For a guy who is hyper-focused at work with the Vancouver Canucks, deliberate and measured in everything he does, Thatcher Demko sure cut loose at his wedding this summer.

Social media accounts were filled with photos of the afterparty at Demko and Lexie Shaw’s July union, where it seems many of the male guests joined the groom in finishing the reception jacket-less and with shirts torn open. It looked like a Chippendales dance-off.

“It just happens,” Canuck winger Tanner Pearson, among the many hockey-playing guests, said this week. “Buttons go flying, and there’s no coming back from that.”

“Everyone was just having a good time,” Demko, 26, smiled when asked about it during training camp in Whistler. “I think I was dancing up there on a table.”

He is accustomed to the height, at least, having been shoved upon a pedestal in Vancouver after his breakthrough season last year saw him play 64 games and post statistics that put him among the top half dozen goalies in the NHL.

Clear Sight Analytics, which measures 34 variables to determine shot quality, ranked Demko fourth in goals-saved-above expectations at 21.3. Natural Stat Trick ranked him second at five-on-five with 24.7 goals saved above NHL average.

In his first full season as a starter, Demko generated a .915 save percentage and went 33-22-7 for a team that missed the playoffs by six points. The Californian was seventh in Vezina Trophy balloting by NHL general managers who made New York Ranger Igor Shesterkin the landslide winner.

By almost any measure, it was a great season for Demko.

But “I thought it was an OK year, to be honest,” he told Sportsnet.

Really? Just OK?

“Yeah,” he continued. “I mean, as a player, you’re always striving to hit new levels. I think you can definitely look back and admit that you had a great year — if you did. For me, sure, it was a step. But I definitely thought that there were stretches where I could have been better. I expect a lot more from myself this year. I’m not disappointed in last year, but I’m also not satisfied with it.”

Demko suffered an undisclosed lower-body injury in an April 19 home game against the Ottawa Senators. He stayed in the game, which the Canucks lost 4-3 in a shootout to end a six-game winning streak. Desperate to keep his team in the playoff race, Demko played hurt the next two games, allowing five goals in each during losses in Minnesota and Calgary, skewing his own statistics downward before coming out of the lineup.

He still won’t reveal the injury but confirmed it required surgery right after the season.

“I knew that if I had gotten the MRI during the season that, you know, they probably would have pushed me to get (surgery) right away,” Demko explained. “So I kind of just waited until our playoff chances were pretty much done.”

His 64 games, which included 61 starts, were third-most among goalies. Only Nashville’s Juuse Soros and Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck played more games. Demko played 35 times as a first-year starter during the NHL’s pandemic season in 2021, and his previous career-high was 46 games for the Utica Comets in 2017-18.

“I don’t think I broke down,” he said of last season’s workload. “It was just a weird play that happened. It was a goalie injury. And it was an injury that I thought I was capable of playing through, especially down the stretch with us making that (playoff) push.

“One of the things I learned was I have to be smarter with the way I kind of approach the start of the season. As a guy that was playing in the minors and backing up Marky (previous starter Jacob Markstrom), I was on the ice in June. I kind of held that mindset going into last year. With the surgery, I was able to have some time to reflect and it kind of forced me to ease back into things. I don’t feel like I’m behind at all right now. I just had a little bit more of a gradual progression to get back on the ice, which I think is going to pay dividends.

“Coming into this camp, I was reflecting a little bit last week. You’re so competitive coming into camp, but in my situation now where I have a little bit more experience and I know what to expect, I feel a little bit more established. There’s a comfort there that I probably haven’t had in years past. I have a guy that I work with on the mental side of things; I think that’s important. It’s just learning and growing and developing.”

Expected to play Thursday’s pre-season game against the Seattle Kraken at Rogers Arena, Demko may have eased himself back on to the ice but was still full-throttle in his preparation.

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Married on July 16, his honeymoon was returning to Vancouver earlier than normal to get in as much work as possible with Canucks goaltending coach Ian Clark, whom Demko campaigned for the organization to retain the previous summer after the player had signed a five-year, $25-million-US extension that already looks like a bargain.

“We had too much anxiety doing (a honeymoon) this close to camp,” Demko said. “At that point in the summer, you’re kind of gearing up. We’ll do it next year.”

Demko and Clark have been working together since early August.

“The way we’re wired, you’re just hard on yourself,” Demko said of being better than he was last season. “Missing the playoffs last year, I don’t really care what you guys think, but I put a little bit of that on me — just feeling like I could have been better. I have personal goals but the team goals are what’s the most important, and if you don’t achieve that, you kind of look at yourself as an individual and look for ways that you can improve and ultimately get to those goals.

“I want to win Stanley Cup here in Vancouver. Since I’ve been drafted (second round in 2014), that’s been the goal as the organization. But I have a little bit of pride in being the guy to do it. We added some pieces this year that got us closer to that and I’m excited for our team. Some of our younger guys aren’t so young anymore, and I think those guys are going to step up and take bigger leadership roles.”

Just like their goalie.

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