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It's time for the Canucks to shut Thatcher Demko down for the season

After Demko suffered a setback at practice on Thursday, the Canucks should shut him down for the season.
Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko had to be helped off the ice after suffering an injury to his right leg on December 1 against the Florida Panthers.

There are 27 games remaining in the Vancouver Canucks’ 2022-23 season and they are nine points out of last place in the NHL.

For the Canucks’ chances of long-term success, that’s a good thing, as the lower they finish in the standings, the better their odds of getting a high draft pick — perhaps even first overall — in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft, which is shaping up to be one of the strongest in recent memory. 

Catching the Chicago Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets at the very bottom of the standings might be too much to ask, but the Canucks have already caught the Arizona Coyotes and the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks are within reach. They have a legitimate chance of finishing in the bottom three in the NHL, 30th overall, which would give them the third best odds at 11.5% of winning the draft lottery and picking Connor Bedard first overall.

Even finishing in the bottom five would guarantee the Canucks a top-seven pick — huge in a draft that is generally considered to have a drop-off after the top-seven prospects.

There’s really only thing that could mess up the Canucks’ chances of tanking for the rest of the season and continuing their charge down the NHL standings: elite goaltending.

Demko suffers setback at Thursday practice

It seemed like Thatcher Demko was slated to return to the Canucks’ lineup this week when Spencer Martin was waived and sent to the Abbotsford Canucks. Even though he had not been activated from the injured reserve, Demko was back participating in full practices.

At least, mostly full.

Demko left practice early on Thursday. Initially, this was brushed aside by head coach Rick Tocchet, who noted that Demko had been on the ice for 30 minutes before practice and that the trainers hadn’t told him anything was wrong.

But then came the report from The Fourth Period’s Irfaan Gaffar that Demko had “suffered a setback” and tweaked his injury during practice.

Video captured from the Canucks’ Thursday practice showed Demko shaking out his injured right leg just before leaving practice.

None of that is a good sign.

Demko has been out of the lineup since December 1, when he suffered a non-contact injury to his right leg. The initial reports were that Demko was only expected to miss six weeks; he’s now been out two-and-a-half months.

Demko's long-term health must be priority

At this point, if there’s any question about whether Demko is 100% or could reaggravate his injury, the Canucks should absolutely shut Demko down for the season. The Canucks’ season is essentially over, with the team’s new head coach, Rick Tocchet, focussing on process ahead of results. Wins are not the point and there’s little that Demko can do to help the process.

There’s nothing to be gained from Demko playing another game this season but there’s plenty to lose. 

First and foremost is Demko’s long-term health. If the Canucks’ management team of Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford is serious about their one to two-year timeline for turning the team around, a healthy Demko is an essential part of that plan. 

Demko is a cornerstone of the Canucks’ core, giving the team an elite player at each key position with Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes. The Canucks don’t have any goaltenders in their system who could take Demko’s place in the next few years barring some astounding development from one of their prospects.

The Canucks clearly haven’t rushed Demko back into action, stretching the timeline of his injury from the original six-week prognosis, but this latest setback suggests they should take even more time to ensure that he’s 100% healthy for next season. Even if the setback is a minor one, it's clear that he needs more time.

It wouldn’t be without precedent this season, as the Canucks have already shown that they’re willing to shut players down that they don’t necessarily have to. Ilya Mikheyev technically could have kept playing this season — in fact, general manager Patrik Allvin said that he wanted to — but the decision was made to shut him down so he could have the knee surgery he needed in order to be ready for next season.

Canucks can't afford to go on a hot streak to end season

The other reason to keep Demko out of the lineup for the rest of the season is that they don’t need anything messing up their draft position.

The Canucks’ goaltenders have struggled behind the team’s permissive defence all season long with a staggeringly-bad .870 save percentage in all situations that is the worst in the league by a wide margin. That’s a far cry from last season, when they had a top-ten save percentage, including a league-leading .930 save percentage at 5-on-5 thanks to some absolutely astounding goaltending from a healthy Demko.

That elite goaltending plastered over the Canucks’ biggest weaknesses as a team. Their defence has only gotten worse this season and, without Demko repeatedly bailing them out, the Canucks have sunk to the bottom of the standings. 

None of the Canucks’ currently healthy goaltenders are likely to go on a hot streak and provide that type of elite goaltending. Spencer Martin has fallen apart under the heavy workload of being a regular NHL starter, Collin Delia has given everything he has but is still just an AHL journeyman, and Arturs Silovs isn’t quite ready to be an NHL regular.

Demko, on the other hand, is eminently capable of stealing games for the Canucks when he’s healthy and that’s exactly what they don’t need right now. 

Let the goaltending continue to struggle, exposing the flaws in the Canucks’ roster construction and sending the Canucks as far down the standings as they can possibly go. Let Demko fully recover from his injury and get a full offseason of preparation in for next season.

Let this season go.