When Jacob Markstrom signed a six-year, $36 million deal with the Calgary Flames on the opening day of free agency, it ended more than just the Trevor Linden trade tree. It also finished a six year span in Vancouver where Markstrom rose from an AHL regular to one of the best goalies in the NHL.
It’s crazy to remember there was a time where people debated if Markstrom or Anders Nilsson was the netminder the Canucks should rebuild around. Both were tall 27 year-old Swedish goalies in 2017-18, and when Markstrom struggled to adjust to his larger NHL workload early on fans began clamoring for more Nilsson starts.
Now, the 6-foot-6 native of Gävle, Sweden is leaving the city he’s called home for most of his hockey life as a conquering hero; a two time team MVP that finishes his Canucks tenure with 99 wins, the fifth most by a goalie in franchise history, and a climb to greatness that made him a fan favourite in Vancouver. Well, that and his general handsomeness.
Of course, right now it’s hard not to look at Markstrom’s pay day as just another example of team management losing one of their best players due to poor cap management. But his big moment does also represent a bittersweet victory for this franchise; their greatest success at developing a goaltender.
It’s no secret that Vancouver has been a “goalie graveyard” for large stretches of the team’s history. Until the Roberto Luongo trade with the Florida Panthers in 2006, the Canucks had never known true stability in net outside of Kirk McLean’s peak seasons. And when Luongo packed up his bags from an Arizona hotel room and went home to Florida in March 2014, Vancouver’s long-term future in goal seemed shaky all over again.
But it was that extremely unpopular – at least with a teenaged Lachlan anyway – Mike Gillis trade that brought Markstrom to Vancouver as a 24 year old with a lot to prove. All most Canucks fans knew about the then 24 year-old at the time was his status as a 2008 31st overall pick who’d struggled playing behind a weak Panthers defense, and some funny antics that’ve gone viral over the course of his career.
Dealing one of the greatest Canucks of all time for a mystery box prospect was a huge gamble by Gillis at the time, and one that arguably cost him his job just over a month later. When Jim Benning came aboard in the 2014 offseason and made Ryan Miller his big free agent acquisition, it put Markstrom on a course back to the AHL with Miller and Eddie Lack firmly placed as the team’s top goalies.
But Benning had bought something far more important than just a quality NHL starter in Miller; he’d bought Markstrom time. Without the added pressure of backstopping the big club right away, Markstrom led the Utica Comets in 2014-15 with a .934 save percentage (2nd best among AHL goalies with 25+ games played), and brought them all the way to the Calder Cup Final.
Even with all of his success in Utica, there were still concerns Markstrom’s game would never translate into making him the solid NHL starter he’d been touted as. In his first season as the Canucks’ 1A choice in 2017-18 he struggled to adjust to his much larger workload, with frequent soft early goals and frantic net front scrambles overshadowing his biggest strides.
For so many Canucks goalie prospects before him, this kind of story doesn’t have a great ending. But Markstrom’s history as a late bloomer and Vancouver’s hiring of Ian Clark as goalie coach culminated in the two greatest seasons of his career. After a career high 28 wins in 2018-19, Markstrom hit a whole new level last season with a .918 save percentage, tenth best among goalies who played 30+ games, and earned the call to represent the Canucks at the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis.
It sure seemed like Markstrom and the Canucks were headed for a long-term marriage, until a knee injury sustained in a February game against Boston put him on the shelf for the rest of the regular season, giving Thatcher Demko the chance to take the reigns. While the coronavirus pause gave the incumbent starter time to recover and put on an incredible show in the playoffs against Minnesota and St. Louis, a new injury for Markstrom reared its head against Vegas and reopened the door for Demko’s legendary performance in the final three games of the series.
Couple the quick rise in Demko’s game with all the business aspects of being a pro hockey team in 2020, be it pandemic related or self-inflicted, and the possibility of bringing the two-time Team MVP back quickly slipped away. But for both Markstrom and Canucks management, his journey to becoming the NHL’s most highly sought free agent netminder deserves to be seen as a victory lap.
In just a few seasons, Markstrom went from nearly setting the NHL record for most games played without getting your first shutout to doing it twice in 40+ save performances. He went from struggling with consistency to routinely stealing victories for his teammates. And he became an integral part of helping a young, inexperienced Canucks team grow into their prime.
Never before have the Canucks turned another team’s undervalued goalie prospect and helped develop them into one of the league’s best. And even with the loss of Markstrom, Vancouver has a true succession plan in place with Demko expected to become the club’s new number one netminder, free agent signing Braden Holtby brought in as a mentor and more than capable backup, and Michael DiPietro making great strides of his own in Utica.
Markstrom will likely make plenty more great memories in Calgary, and so will the Canucks’ young goalies stepping up to take his place. But the legacy he leaves behind with this team and its next generation of stars is unmistakable; the right combination of coaching, hard work and patience can make all the difference in turning a good player into a great one.
Jacob Markstrom came to Vancouver a good goalie, and he departs it as a great one.