I remember there was a whole lot of hullabaloo surrounding the free agent signing of Jacob Markstrom back in early October. Pundits from around the hockey world seemed united in their declaration of support for the six-year, blockbuster deal that promised to end the Calgary Flames’ seemingly endless search for a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. Calgary had found the rightful successor to the legendary Miikka Kirprusoff — they finally had their man!
But, do they? YES, NO and MAYBE is the confusing but accurate answer to this critical question after the big Swede completed a rollercoaster first season with the boys in red.
Markstrom Hot Out of the Gate
In the early weeks of the 2020-21 NHL season, the Flames were playing a very inconsistent brand of hockey. Yet, they were still hanging around the top-four spots in the Scotia North Division, all thanks to the strong start of their big offseason signing. With two shutouts in the first month of the campaign and the ability to give the Flames a chance to win every time he suited up, the former Vancouver Canuck garnered rave reviews and the early nod as the team MVP. Sure, it was only a few weeks into his tenure, but Markstrom seemed to be worth every penny of his $36 million contract.
If we divide up the 6-foot-6 netminder’s year into three specific segments, three very different players seem to emerge. After his first third of the 2020-21 season (from Jan. 14-Feb. 17), Markstrom posted a very solid 8-5-1 record, a .918 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.61 goals-against average (GAA). At this point of the campaign, if you had asked me if the Flames had truly “found their man,” my answer would have been a resounding YES.
Midseason Struggles and Injury Woes
The turning point of Markstrom’s season came during final game of his first “segment” of the 2020-21 campaign. That’s when the Calgary netminder made the snap decision to leave his net and charge at the Canucks’ Tanner Pearson to shut down a clear-cut breakaway attempt. The massive collision sent Pearson flying, but No. 25 seemed no worse for wear and stayed in the game. He would eventually be replaced by David Rittich after giving up his fifth goal of the night, but at the time nobody thought much of the major mid-ice impact… other than it being an awesome sports highlight.
Markstrom didn’t start the next game, but when he came back on Feb. 20, he had his worst outing of the season, getting yanked after letting in five goals on 15 shots against the Edmonton Oilers. That awful performance was the last time he saw the ice for 16 days, as the Flames placed the club’s No. 1 netminder on the injured reserve list until March 6. After returning to the lineup, Markstrom ran both hot and cold, and wasn’t even close to being the same player who started the season with such promise. It was later revealed he had been suffering from a concussion.
After finishing his middle segment of the 2020-21 season (from March 6-April 5), Markstrom posted a very disappointing 5-8-1 record, a .890 SV% and a 2.95 GAA. In hindsight, it was this particular section of the campaign when Calgary truly needed stellar goaltending to compensate for a wilting offensive attack. Instead, they completely fell out of the Scotia North Division playoff picture and would never find their way back. At this point, if you had asked me if the Flames had truly “found their man,” my answer would have been a resounding NO.
The Big Swede Had a Big Bounce-Back to Finish the Season
With a little over a month to go in the regular season, a lot of people (including yours truly) had already written off the Flames’ chances of making the playoffs as slim to none. However, a funny thing happened down the stretch. The fourth-place Montreal Canadiens began a lengthy stumble to the finish line, which kicked the door wide open for Calgary to try a last-minute (but ill-fated) push for the postseason. The surge was officially launched on April 10 with Markstrom’s third shutout of the season and the big Swede ended up playing his best hockey of the year, giving his team the great goaltending they needed to try and make a run.
After closing out his final segment of the 2020-21 season (from April 10-May 19), Markstrom posted a sparkling 10-5-1 record, a .917 SV% and a 2.05 GAA. This performance was all the more impressive if you consider the fact that Calgary traded away their backup goalie on April 12, ensuring that No. 25 would start the rest of the season’s meaningful games without a single night off. So, if you asked me today if the Flames have truly “found their man” after looking back at his final third of the campaign, my answer would be a decidedly wishy-washy… MAYBE?
Markstrom’s Final Grade for the 2020-21 Season
Because of the compressed schedule of this rather unique 56-game, pandemic-style regular season, a steady hand between the pipes was critical to ensure overall success and to a lock up a trip the postseason. While Markstrom proved he could hold down the fort for good stretches of the year, he ultimately fell short of providing the season-long, rock-solid play required to be a truly elite, No. 1 goalie in this league.
You may think my final answer to the question “have the Flames found their man” is a complete cop-out and I actually have to agree with you. However, I do think I could change that answer to a resounding YES if Markstrom can stay healthy for an entire season, benefit from some better defensive play in front of him, and get paired with a reliable backup.
FINAL GRADE: B-