The Vancouver Canucks were the last Canadian team standing during the 2020 bubble playoffs — one game away from reaching the Western Conference Final after Thatcher Demko stepped in for Jacob Markstrom against the fearsome Vegas Golden Knights.
Of the six Canadian clubs that qualified for the 24-team postseason, just two got out of the qualifying round. The underdog Montreal Canadiens, ranked 24th, wouldn't have been in the playoffs in a normal, 16-team situation. The Calgary Flames knocked out another Canadian club, the Winnipeg Jets, before imploding spectacularly against the Dallas Stars — who, admittedly, were a lot better than anyone was giving them credit for at that point.
The Canucks got their kudos from the hockey world for their impressive postseason showing. But now that most of the offseason roster shuffling is complete, here's Sportsnet's Luke Fox slotting the Canucks into fifth place in his seven-team Canadian power rankings — only ahead of Montreal and Ottawa.
As Fox rightfully points out, lists like this are a thankless job: pretty much every fanbase has a reason to get riled up.
But as we've seen so often over the last six weeks or so, Fox's analysis of the state of the Canucks focuses mostly on who's gone. And while he does call Jacob Markstrom the "Toughest Departure," he leads his commentary with this:
No first-round draft pick.
No qualifying offer for a young, eager defenceman like Troy Stecher. No ability to retain point-per-game deadline rental Toffoli.
First off — the lack of a first-round draft pick at No. 20 is almost certainly not relevant to the Canucks' fortunes this season. Perhaps a handful of 2020 draftees will end up playing when the season gets going. Last year, just three got more than 10 games — No. 1 Jack Hughes (61 games), No. 2 Kaapo Kakko (66 games) and No. 3 Kirby Dach (64 games).
Secondly — I think we've all made peace with the reason why the Canucks didn't have that first rounder, right? J.T. Miller finished 17th in NHL scoring during the regular season and hit career highs in both goals (27) and points (72), despite the shortened season. He proved to be a perfect linemate for Elias Pettersson and a strong voice of leadership in the locker room.
He helped the Canucks get better right now — and achieve Jim Benning's goal of making the postseason part of the conversation in Vancouver once again.
Miller went on to post 18 points in 17 playoff games — tied for 12th in the league and tied with Pettersson for tops on the Canucks. And he did it while not just playing through a suspected injury but also, we learned last week from Ben Kuzma, with a heavy heart. Back home in Pittsburgh, his mother-in-law was in the final stages of her battle with brain cancer. She went into hospice care just before Game 7 against Vegas on Sept. 4, and passed away on Sept. 8.
On the hockey side, Miller must feel like he's constantly pushing to get back to where he was. In 2014, as a 21-year-old, he went to the Stanley Cup Final with the New York Rangers. In 2019, he was part of that record-setting Tampa Bay Lightning team that flamed out in a first-round sweep before he was traded to Vancouver for salary-cap reasons.
Going into the bubble, Miller had more postseason experience than most of his Canucks teammates, but was critical of his own past performances. This year, he delivered despite adversity. But now the Canucks have new roster holes to fill.
"A lot of guys were big pieces and it was shocking to me," Miller told Kuzma. "We proved that we were right there and on the cusp of being close to winning. Now, it’s a bit of a reboot and obviously they’re putting a lot of faith in the younger guys. There are jobs to be won and good, healthy competition. But we do have good, young talented players who can take over our team at a very young age."
Demko, of course, has the most daunting task — just because Jacob Markstrom was such a rock behind a defense that gave up the fourth-most shots in the regular season (33.3 shots per game) and third-most in the playoffs (36.7 per game). Playoff overtimes are a small factor in why the postseason number is higher — three of the Canucks' first seven games went past 60 minutes — but the bigger reason was "playing Vegas."
Before the second round, the only game where the Canucks gave up more than 40 shots was the Game 3 overtime loss to St. Louis — 49 shots in 75:06 of action.
By contrast, all seven games against Vegas were decided in regulation, but Vancouver allowed 40 or more shots on goal in three of those seven games — two of them wins — and 39 in a fourth.
Given how Demko raised his game between his relief work for Markstrom before the pause and the job he did in the bubble, I feel pretty good about him being ready to take this next step.
Iain MacIntyre recently chatted with Demko about his ascension:
"I struggled a little bit," Demko admitted of his run in late February and early March. "I knew that was a big opportunity for me. It was a mental maturity thing the first time Marky got hurt.
"When that second opportunity came around in the playoffs, it was like: OK, I’ve been in this situation before. I learned a ton the first time around and now these games are even bigger. I was able to kind of settle in and just be a lot more confident in myself after learning from my failures. I knew the second time around, I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes."
Demko is in Vancouver, practicing with a small group of Canucks that also includes Elias Pettersson, Zack MacEwen and Alex Edler. Goaltending coach Ian Clark is also in the mix, helping Demko hone his skills for his new role.
The late start to the new season has given him plenty of time to reflect on his performance in Edmonton.
"I’d had some opportunities that maybe didn’t go great, and I was able to learn from those," he said. "The physical side of things and the mental side of things kind of lined up for me, and it definitely reinforced where I want to go with my career. The game, it felt easy, it felt fun. Obviously, I wanted to win Game 7. But now that some time has passed, I’m able to look back and really enjoy how fun that was for me. Just having that confidence and kind of proving to myself that I can do it – three games in four nights – yeah, it was definitely a big step."
And as Demko points out, this learning curve isn't new to him.
"I remember my first year in Utica (in the American League) was a really similar year," he said. "I was able to come back in my second year after learning so much and applying things I’d picked up. I feel really confident going into this year. I’m right where I want to be in my career right now.
"I think there’s a lot on the table and I’m just really excited to get the opportunity take that next step."
Demko's save percentage in Utica climbed from .907 in his rookie season to .922 in his second year, and his GAA dropped from 2.68 to 2.44.
Last year, he was .905 and 3.06 in the regular season with the Canucks, then an incredible .985 and 0.64 in the playoffs.
It feels like a lot to ask him to delivery Markstrom-quality netminding, but it seems like the foundation is in place for that to happen.
If he delivers, and new arrival Nate Schmidt is the blueliner booster that he should be, the Canucks should rank well above fifth place in Luke Fox's season-ending Canadian power rankings.