Thatcher Demko is the Vancouver Canucks’ number-one goaltender. Spencer Martin is the backup goaltender.
But, for the moment, those roles are reversed and there’s nothing controversial about that.
On Tuesday night, Martin will make his third start for the Canucks in the last four games. Demko’s only start in that time came in the second half of back-to-back games against a lesser opponent in the San Jose Sharks. In other words, at least for the last week, Martin has been deployed like he was the number one and Demko was the backup.
This sounds like the makings of a good old-fashioned goaltending controversy, like Roberto Luongo vs Cory Schneider, but there’s nothing really controversial here. So far this season, Martin has been better than Demko, so he’s going to get a few more starts. That doesn’t mean Martin is supplanting or that there’s any animosity involved.
"Marty's been playing awesome."
Fans often perceive a goaltending tandem as being in competition with each other and, to a certain extent, they are. After all, only one goaltender can play at a time and no one wants to lose their job.
In a healthy goaltending tandem, however, that competition is a friendly one. First and foremost, they’re teammates working together for a common cause: winning hockey games.
Demko made that clear after his win over the San Jose Sharks on Sunday.
“It’s not a secret — I’ve been fighting it this year,” said Demko. “Marty’s been playing awesome and guys have been rallying around him, for sure. I’ve been trying to help him out as much as I can…I’ve got to get my game going too.”
It was a strong start for Demko in San Jose, even if a couple of bad-luck bounces beat him to keep his save percentage down. It might be surprising, then, that head coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t go back to Demko for Tuesday’s start back at home, but Boudreau doesn’t want to rush anything.
“The whole idea is not to all of a sudden he plays a couple good games and then give him eight in a row,” said Boudreau. “You want to bring it up a little slower for Thatcher. The next time, he might start two in a row, and then it’ll gradually get back to where he’s the guy if he continues to play the way he’s been playing.”
"You can't deny that Spencer's been great."
Boudreau’s job as head coach is to try to win as many games as possible. That sometimes means ignoring who has the long-term contract and who has won the most games in the past and focusing on who is most likely to get him the win now. So far this season, that’s been Martin.
“You can’t deny that Spencer’s been great every time — touch wood — that we put him out there,” said Boudreau. “I don’t know what his overall record is but I think it’s one loss in 14 or 15 games. So, you can’t just sit there and say because Demmer’s our number one guy and our future that we’re gonna forget about the guy that’s gotten us into a pretty good position right now.”
It’s not hard to understand why Boudreau has a bit more faith in Martin than in Demko right now. Martin has a .907 save percentage this season; Demko has an .885 save percentage.
That’s simplifying it significantly, of course. It’s not entirely Demko’s fault that his save percentage is so ugly, as the biggest reason it’s so low is his dreadful .706 save percentage on the penalty kill — second-lowest in the NHL — which has a lot to do with the quality of chances the Canucks penalty killers have given up this season.
Former NHL goaltender Mike McKenna was blunt in his assessment of Demko's troubles: "I can unequivocally say that the Canucks have been putrid defensively in front of him."
Still, Martin has gotten results. His .907 save percentage is above the NHL average of .905 this season, which is pretty impressive given the Canucks’ defensive struggles. His performance has helped the Canucks to a 6-1-1 record in Martin’s eight starts this season, while Demko has gotten just three wins out of his 14 starts.
Martin has gotten more goal support than Demko
It’s not just Martin’s goaltending that has led to that record, of course. The Canucks have also given Martin a lot more goal support — 4.75 goals per game compared to 2.93 goals per game for Demko.
But Martin has been a difference-maker. In the opening minutes of the Canucks’ Saturday game in Vegas, Martin faced three Grade-A chances from the Golden Knights’ top line and came up with three enormous saves. From there, the Canucks were able to turn the momentum and take over the game, ultimately winning 5-1.
Maybe Demko would have made those same three saves but those were the types of stops that he wasn’t making early in the season. If the Golden Knights had scored on one or more of those chances, it would have been easy to forgive Martin, as they were quality chances given up by defensive mistakes, but the Canucks needed their goaltender to bail them out and he did.
Long term, Demko is obviously still the Canucks' number-one goaltender. He's proven in the past that he's capable of not just being above average but being among the elite goaltenders in the NHL.
“We know [Demko] is going to be awesome for a long time," said Boudreau last week. "It’s not like all of a sudden he’s going to be relegated to being a backup."
But for now, Martin will get starts like a number-one goaltender and Demko will get starts like a backup. And there’s nothing controversial about it.