Why Thatcher Demko’s injury will test Canucks’ ‘if everything goes right’ formulation

VANCOUVER — At the start of this dream campaign for the Vancouver Canucks, team president Jim Rutherford, general manager Patrik Allvin and head coach Rick Tocchet held a news conference at the Parq hotel to open training camp and welcome media members to the 2023-24 season.

It’s at this news conference that Rutherford, in his frank and memorable style, delivered the line that has, in some ways, hung over and defined this entire Canucks season.

“I think, to be very to the point, with the changes that have been made, we have a playoff team if everything goes right,” Rutherford said.



Canucks’ Thatcher Demko out for Game 2 vs. Predators

It was a line that’s been focused on and discussed ad nauseam in Vancouver ever since, particularly as just about everything seemed to go right for Vancouver in the opening four months of the regular season. What’s been focused on somewhat less frequently, however, is what Rutherford offered thereafter.

“We want to get to a point that we have enough in our lineup that you can have a few things go wrong … and overcome that,” Rutherford said, somewhat more aspirationally.

If Vancouver’s path to success felt somewhat volatile coming into this season, the way this club has performed, its structural and defensive excellence in particular, has seemed to somewhat change the equation over the balance of this season.

In September it may have felt like Vancouver’s success would necessarily have to be achieved on a knife’s edge, and certainly it could be said early in the campaign that the Canucks benefitted from the bounces, but as the season progressed, this team legitimately improved, even as its results slowed somewhat.

By February, March and April, Vancouver wasn’t scoring on a historically efficient percentage of its shots. Injuries to some key players, most notably star netminder Thatcher Thatcher Demko, but also Dakota Joshua and Elias Lindholm, piled up. The referees’ whistle wasn’t quite as kind to Vancouver, the Canucks dropped some weird ones with a frequency that didn’t exist in October and November, and the things they tried stopped working as frequently, while the things their opponents tried more regularly did.

And to some extent, it didn’t really matter. Yes, the Oilers were able to close the gap in the Pacific Division to make Game 80 an interesting one, but Vancouver played its game and prevailed. The Canucks held onto the division crown, they held onto home-ice advantage, and while their form was somewhat more like “a strong playoff team” as opposed to a “world beater,” this team showed the mettle to do what good teams do. Vancouver kept winning, and overcame it when “a few things (went) wrong.”



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On Tuesday, as the club took an optional morning skate ahead of Game 2 of its first-round series against the Nashville Predators, Demko was absent. It was reported, first by Frank Seravalli of Daily Faceoff and later confirmed by sources to The Athletic’s Rick Dhaliwal, that Demko will be out for Game 2. His status over the balance of Vancouver’s first-round series is now very much in question, with Tocchet describing the injury as “day to day.”

“He skated yesterday. He’s not going to play tonight,” said Tocchet. “It wasn’t the old injury and that’s all I really got for you guys.”

Demko is an ace in Vancouver’s hand when he’s healthy. The Vancouver starter won an astounding 35 of his 51 starts this season, while posting a .918 save percentage and a goals saved above average number bested only by Connor Hellebuyck. He is, without question, one of Vancouver’s most important players.

And the team needs him if it’s going to go deep into the postseason. There’s little doubt about that.

Contemporary NHL clubs, however, regularly need two goaltenders if they’re going to make the sort of playoff run that persists into late May and early June. Both Stanley Cup finalists last season started two different goaltenders in their first-round series, for example. The year prior, the Colorado Avalanche turned to a backup to start games in the Western Conference final due to injury.

The best teams can have things go wrong for them, and overcome that.



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And that’s now the test in Game 2 and until Demko returns for Vancouver. Between Casey DeSmith and Arturs Silovs, Vancouver has the goaltending depth to get a level of puck stopping that should still permit the Canucks to win games. You don’t expect Silovs or DeSmith to steal games (or steal an entire series) the way Demko can, but both of Vancouver’s auxiliary netminders have been good enough to win games in front of all year. Now they’ll have to continue to be as Demko recuperates.

Meanwhile, the Canucks are about to put Rutherford’s preseason goal for this team to the test. Up 1-0 in their first-round series against the Predators, the Canucks have enough strengths — especially their defensive game, which severely limited Nashville’s top line in Game 1 — to win. To advance. And to buy Demko enough time to return again.

We’ll learn now whether this team has reached the stage where they can overcome.

(Photo: Derek Cain / Getty Images)

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