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How much of a difference does Demko make for the Canucks?

"[Demko] is probably the best goaltender in the world. It's nice to add that to your team."
Thatcher Demko is back at practice with the Vancouver Canucks.

With just three games remaining in the Vancouver Canucks’ regular season, Thatcher Demko is almost ready to return.

After his first full practice on Thursday, he knew there would be a lot of questions in his first media scrum since the injury, so he rattled off some prepared answers to kick things off.

“Yes, I feel fine. I don’t know if I’m playing Saturday. And yes, it was a knee injury,” said Demko. “There you go.”

"He’s probably the best goaltender in the world"

While head coach Rick Tocchet didn’t entirely close the door on the possibility of Demko playing on Saturday — a crucial game against the Edmonton Oilers that could decide the Pacific Division — Demko made it clear that the plan was for him to return against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.

“Our goal since pretty much close to day one was to get back for the Calgary game,” said Demko. “Obviously, I do feel good right now. I think the timeline that we’ve kind of been trying to follow and pushing for has been the Calgary game.”

That leaves two potential starts for Demko to get back in the flow of game action before the playoffs. The Canucks have to hope that will be enough time for him to be back at the top of his game.

Demko, at least, isn’t concerned.

“I’ve played close to 50 games this year and that was just a month ago,” said Demko. “It’s not like coming off of the offseason where you haven’t played a game in three or four months and you’re trying to get back. I feel great. I feel pretty much right where I was when I went down.”

That’s good news for the Canucks because the last month without Demko has been a bit of a mess. The Canucks have gone 6-5-2 over the last month, with only one of their wins coming against a team in playoff position. 

In several of those losses, goaltending has been a significant issue, as backup goaltender Casey DeSmith and rookie call-up Arturs Silovs have given up some ugly goals to put the team down early.

In those 13 games without Demko, the Canucks’ goaltenders have combined for an .875 save percentage.

It’s not really the fault of either DeSmith or Silovs. DeSmith has been a pretty reliable backup goaltender this season but the workload of being an everyday starter has simply been too much for him. As for Silovs, his mental game is clearly ready for the NHL — he hasn’t been rattled by giving up early goals — but some elements of his physical game have come up short of NHL standards. There’s still some development necessary before he’s ready for full-time duty in the NHL.

In other words, neither one is ready for the role that Demko plays but few goaltenders are. Demko is an elite goaltender and vital to the Canucks’ hopes for a long playoff run.

“He’s probably the best goaltender in the world,” said Conor Garland. “It’s nice to add that to your team.”

But just how much of a difference does Demko actually make? Let’s take a closer look at the impact Demko has had for the Canucks this season.

Thatcher Demko is better than expected

Let’s be clear: goaltenders are tough to assess with statistics. 

Goals against average is massively dependent on the quality of the team in front of you. As for save percentage, it essentially assumes that all shots are created equal. A goaltender gets the same credit for stopping a wrist shot from centre ice as they do for robbing Auston Matthews on the power play after a cross-seam pass with traffic in front of the net. 

The various advanced analytics surrounding goaltending are an improvement but still far from perfect. By using play-by-play data that includes things like shot location and shot type, statisticians can estimate the likelihood of each shot resulting in a goal. While that’s still missing information such as whether there was a pass before the shot and how much traffic was in front, it’s a little bit more useful.

We can then take how many goals a goaltender might be expected to give up based on the quality of shots they face and how many goals they actually gave up. That gives us the Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx) statistic, where Demko ranks among the best goaltenders in the NHL this season. 

By Evolving-Hockey’s reckoning, Demko has saved 25.46 goals more than he would be expected to given the quality and quantity of shots he has faced. That ranks third in the NHL behind Connor Hellebuyck and Jacob Markstrom. 

Compare that to DeSmith, who has played behind the same team this season, has saved 2.71 fewer goals than expected. That’s a significant swing in quality.

Think of it this way: Evolving-Hockey estimates the expected goals against the Canucks this season to be around 237. If DeSmith was in net for all of their games and kept the same rate of GSAx, the Canucks would have given up approximately 245 goals against. 

That would take the Canucks’ goal differential this season from a sparkling +55 to a much more mundane +25 that would rank 12th in the NHL — still good and probably still good enough to be a playoff team thanks to their significant defensive improvements under Tocchet, but they’d likely be competing for a wild card spot rather than first in the Pacific Division and their prospects of a deep playoff run would look significantly more bleak.

Again, this is nothing against DeSmith — he’s done his job as a backup this season — but more to illustrate just how significant Demko is as a difference-maker.

Demko dominates on the penalty kill

Where does Demko make the biggest difference? Let’s look at how each of the Canucks’ goalies have performed in different scenarios.

Arturs Silovs is included in the chart above for completeness but small samples sizes should be kept in mind. You can click on his name to remove him from the comparison.

What’s fascinating is that Demko and DeSmith are nearly identical at 5-on-5, with Demko’s .923 save percentage only lightly ahead of DeSmith’s .921. The real difference comes on the penalty kill.

When Demko got injured, the Canucks’ penalty kill held together briefly but then completely fell apart. Since the injury, the Canucks have killed of 75.6% of their penalties, which ranks in the bottom ten in the NHL in that span. Over their last seven games, the Canucks have given up nine power play goals.

Demko’s influence is clear: at 4-on-5, he has an .893 save percentage compared to DeSmith’s .835. On high-danger chances at 4-on-5, Demko still has an .846 save percentage — fifth among NHL goaltenders with at least 30 starts — while DeSmith has a .733 save percentage.

In other words, Demko comes up with the big saves while shorthanded that lesser goaltenders don't.

Demko also comes through in the clutch. In situations where the score is within one goal — trailing by one, tied, or leading by one — Demko has a .912 save percentage in all strengths; DeSmith has an .896 save percentage.

Demko is poised to rattle the confidence of their opponents

With Demko in net heading into the playoffs, the Canucks can be confident that they have one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, a goaltender who has already shown that he can step up in the playoffs. He was brilliant during the bubble year in 2020 with a .985 save percentage against the Vegas Golden Knights that left them shaking their heads in bewilderment at their inability to score.

“There’s no doubt that the last couple games of the Vancouver series against Demko rattled our confidence a little bit in that area as a group,” said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer. “Honestly, up until that point, I thought we were creating a ton of offence, we were scoring a lot of goals. It was never an issue.”

WIth any luck, Demko will be rattling the confidence of several different playoff opponents in the weeks to come.