VANCOUVER – It wasn’t just the time to heal that was vitally important to Thatcher Demko during his three months off, it was the time to think.
It was the chance for the Vancouver Canucks’ goalie to assess why things went wrong for him at the start of the National Hockey League season, and how he could plot his way back not only to full health after tearing his groin on Dec. 1 but to full form. Back to the elite goalie he was last season.
Five games into his return – four wins and a .928 save rate – the 27-year-old looks whole again in every sense.
Thatcher Demko looks like Thatcher Demko, which is fantastic news for Canucks as they take inventory before this season ends about what they have going into next season.
“I knew coming back it was a good opportunity for a fresh start,” Demko said Monday after the Canucks practised for Tuesday night’s home game against the Dallas Stars. “I spent a lot of time on the mental side of things, building myself back up and making sure, you know, that I was using these last games that I had to set myself up for next season and try to get my game back to where I know it can be.”
It appears to be there. The four wins Demko has since returning two weeks ago from the worst injury of his career is more than he accumulated in the first two months of the season, when he struggled to a 3-10-2 start and .883 save percentage.
After undergoing an undisclosed medical procedure at the end of last season – Demko has characterized it as common for goaltenders – the San Diegan reported back to the Canucks in early August, putting off his honeymoon to spend extra prep time in Vancouver with goalie coach Ian Clark.
He said in September he never felt better prepared for a season and made it clear that he expected even more from himself after last year’s breakthrough, telling Sportsnet: “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.”
As an organization, the Canucks expected more of themselves, too. And when both the team and their star goalie foundered last fall, the weight of their expectations began to sink them.
“It’s easy to speculate, you know what I mean?” Demko said Monday when asked about the cause of his slow start. “You can find anything and make it the reason if you want to. For me, something that I’ve been working on a lot my whole career has just been (being) a little bit easier on myself at times. I definitely felt like I was applying a lot of pressure on myself as things were getting worse and worse, and the tension kind of builds a little bit.
“I definitely think I’m better off for this season, having learned a lot – a ton, to be honest. I feel like a whole new person going through these last five months.”
Did he put too much pressure on himself?
“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “I think. . . it had gotten past the point of enjoying it, you know? It felt so business-like for me coming into this season. Like I said, I learned a lot from it and I’m definitely excited for what’s ahead, having learned the lessons that I did learn.”
Demko’s injury, which eventually pushed the Canucks past the tipping point as the team plummeted from the playoff race during the final weeks under coach Bruce Boudreau, may prove to be another launch point for the goalie.
He went 33-22-7 last season with a .915 save rate, and by several advanced metrics was a top-five goalie in the league. Demko finished seventh in Vezina Trophy balloting by general managers.
“The first couple days it’s like, ‘holy, man, this sucks,’” Demko said of his injury. “That’s just the type of season it was. But as you reflect and you have conversations with the people that are around you that care about you. . . they kind of help you steer yourself. It pretty quickly turned into me realizing that I had a lot of time to reflect and I had a lot of time to work on my physiology, my biology, the mental side of things, just the whole thing. It’s only been five games, but I definitely want to keep building off the start I’ve had coming back.”
Which means he will continue to play games no matter how much coach Rick Tocchet’s deployment of his best players frustrate tankists in Canucks Nation. With a three-game road trip to Arizona and California looming, the team is near the end of a stretch of seven games in 18 days.
The schedule has given Tocchet plenty of time for systems work and the Canucks, 31st in the NHL defensively when he took over from Boudreau, are transforming into a far sturdier, more dependable team. In the last two games, against the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks, Demko faced only 42 shots.
“It’s definitely encouraging to see the transformation,” he said. “Obviously, we’re still trying to get better every day as a team. But just the energy in the room and the willingness to commit to getting better every day has definitely taken a step for us. It’s something that every good team does.”
It’s another reason Demko is eager to remain with the Canucks despite playing only four NHL playoff games in nearly seven years with the organization.
“I’m pretty loyal guy, and I’m definitely a guy that wants to be part of the solution instead of trying to scurry away when things get hard,” he said. “I have grown up with a handful of these guys here in this organization. I’ve been here a long time. I’m not a guy that wants to run away when things get hard. I think we have the pieces in here (to win). And I don’t think there’d be a better feeling in the world than being a part of the team that brought a championship to this city. To be able to say that I was a part of that is something that really excites me.”