‘I was learning and adapting on the fly and I’ll be able to handle that a little bit better,’ says star netminder. ‘I’m not afraid to play games and whatever the team needs for me, I’ll be able to provide’

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Jim Rutherford appeared in a career-high 59 games as the besieged starting goaltender for the struggling Detroit Red Wings in the 1974-75 National Hockey League season.

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The workload resulted in a bloated 3.74 goal-against average and paltry .877 save percentage for a club that went 23-34-12-0. The Red Wings missed the NHL playoffs by a whopping 31 points, an eye-opener for the then-25-year-old stopper.

“It was probably harder for me, I was 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, and I certainly wasn’t as strong as Thatcher (Demko) and we didn’t have goalie coaches in those days,” the Vancouver Canucks’ president of hockey operations recalled with a chuckle Tuesday during his season-end address.

“I think it’s around 60 games if you want your goalie to be good in the playoffs.”

Rutherford labeled Demko “a franchise goalie” when he joined the front office in December. He believed a foundation piece would allow work around the roster edges to add depth, speed and youth — as long as wear and tear didn’t drain his starter, leading to injury and concern.

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Demko established career highs this season for appearances (64), wins (33) and goals-against average (2.72), but played through discomfort in the stretch drive. The club’s most valuable player didn’t play in the final three games due to a lower-body injury.

“It happened probably a month ago and it was during a game,” said the 26-year-old Demko. “It was just a weird little play in a weird position. I knew something was up right away, but obviously we were kind of in the (playoff) mix there so it was something I was just trying to play through for the last little bit.

“Ultimately, when it got to a certain point, I made a decision with the medical staff to shut it down. And we’re still thinking about what the next steps might be.

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“I was learning and adapting on the fly and I’ll be able to handle that a little bit better. I’m not afraid to play games and whatever the team needs for me, I’ll be able to provide.”

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A decision on a Demko medical procedure hasn’t been made, but if it’s minor, it shouldn’t affect an intriguing goaltending tandem for next season and the need to be better in the defensive zone.

“We’d like to see our team play a more structured game and not depend on our goalie as much,” said Rutherford. “We’re very fortunate we have a terrific goalie and all teams have to have a goalie like Demko to win a Cup.”

Especially in the manner in which he gutted out a lot of nights.

“We were in the hunt and every game was like a Game 7 and he didn’t want to leave us,” said Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau. “He had an injury that was probably not helping him, but his competitiveness showed through and that’s what makes great players great — not letting anybody know they’re not up to 100 per cent.

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“I’ve never had a goalie who’s out there so early and works so hard. Hopefully, next year we’re not fighting to win every game, and in a perfect world you’d like somebody to play 25 games and him (Demko) 55 games and then run with him in the playoffs.”

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The crease has transitioned from Demko and proven unrestricted free agent Jaroslav Halak, 36, to the lanky Spencer Martin, 26. He has logged just nine career NHL games, including six this season where he went 3-0-3 with a remarkable 1.74 GAA and .950 save percentage.

Rutherford reasoned if you can get a back-up goalie making the league minimum — Martin has two more years at US $750,000 and $775,000 annually in total salary on his one-way extension — it provides salary cap roster flexibility.

“He played extremely well in Abbotsford (19-4-2, 2.43 GAA., .914 save percentage) and played well here,” assessed Rutherford. “He can’t take anything for granted this off-season. He needs to work hard and come in and play the same way.

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“I will say that sometimes you see a goalie and you’re not sure — he’s out of position or doesn’t know where the rebound is — but Martin was solid. I would be surprised if he dropped off next year.”

As for Demko, his first full campaign as the starter was a signature season. It included weekly and monthly league honors, an All-Star Game invite and 2022 Winter Olympics roster consideration for Team USA, had the NHL participated in Beijing, China.

He reached the 30-win plateau with 36 saves to backstop a 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on April 9 — Roberto Luongo was the last franchise stopper to hit that mark with 31 wins in 2011-12 — and a performance on Hockey Night in Canada cemented his starter status.

Demko doused doubters with a career-best, 51-save stunner in a 3-2 win Feb. 12 over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He could have boasted about the achievement, but he’s not wired that way.

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“There were a lot of things I learned through the process and things I can improve on,” said Demko. “Overall, a positive year and understanding it through experience is something I was missing previously.”

His off-season will include healing, a wedding and more guidance from highly respected goalie coach Ian Clark.

“I went to bat for him last year (to be retained) and I thought I made that pretty clear,” said Demko “Just like any relationship, the more time you spend with someone, the closer you get.

“We had another good year and we’ll just continue.”

[email protected]

twitter.com/benkuzma


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