We’re just past the midway point of the Calgary Flames 2021-22 campaign and Jacob Markstrom has already suited up 34 times between the pipes, putting him on pace for a career-high 64 starts. There are two very different ways to react to this trend. The first is to say, “Let the man play, this is exactly why the team signed him to that big contract!” The other option is to pump the brakes, take note of his history of injuries and seriously consider limiting the big Swede’s workload in the second half of the season.
I don’t think I’m being a worrywart. The most games Markstrom has ever played in a regular season is 60, which he hit in back-to-back years playing for the Vancouver Canucks in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Since then, the 32-year-old netminder hasn’t been able to finish a campaign without missing significant time due to injury, and that includes last season here in Calgary. The Flames’ number one guy might be having a career year, but I don’t really think he’s a workhorse who can play 65-70 games a season and remain truly effective.
Sutter Is Leaning Heavily on Markstrom, Ignoring Vladar
I’m pretty sure most NHL coaches give their number one goalie a break on the second night of back-to-backs, but Darryl Sutter isn’t most coaches. In consecutive weeks, the Flames’ bench boss trotted out Markstrom on consecutive nights, with very mixed results. On Jan. 27, Sutter gave the nod to the 6-foot-6 Swede, despite it being his third game in four days. The Flames lost that one 5-1 to the St. Louis Blues. The very next week, he started back-to-back games again, despite getting yanked after the second period against the Dallas Stars. This begs the question, has the head coach lost all confidence in his backup goaltender?
When asked why Dan Vladar didn’t get the start against the Blues last month, Sutter’s answer was blunt: “(Markstrom) hasn’t had much work, we didn’t play for a month, we get four days off in a few days. The other guy hasn’t won for a month. Pretty easy. It wasn’t even a hard decision, it was one we made a long time ago.” When the head coach made those comments, Vladar had not played since losing back-to-back games on Jan 6-7, and you know it’s never a good sign when your boss refers to you as, “the other guy.”
Even after an ice-cold Vladar entered last week’s game against the Stars to relieve Markstrom and completely shut the door to secure the 4-3 victory, Sutter still went back to his number one netminder the very next night in Arizona. I don’t know about you, but if I had a backup goalie who hadn’t played in a month and needed a confidence-boosting start, I would definitely give him the net against one of the NHL’s doormats. But that’s just me.
Flames’ Second Half Schedule Is Jam-packed With 9 Back-to-Backs
Some of you might be thinking, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and while Markstrom did manage to make it through the first half of the 2021-22 season with only one game missed due to a mystery ailment, I don’t think the Flames should push their luck with a condensed schedule that sees them play 39 times in 79 days. Last season, the 32-year-old Swede didn’t look right after an on-ice collision with the Canucks’ Tanner Pearson and played worse even after taking a couple of weeks off to recover.
In his final year in Vancouver, Markstrom also missed significant time in the regular season and the playoffs due to knee and lower body injuries. When his understudy Thatcher Demko rose to the occasion in his absence, it made the big guy expendable and the Canucks opted not to re-sign him. While Vancouver’s loss is definitely Calgary’s gain, I do think the Flames should learn from the past and not overextend their first-string netminder. Is this really a goalie that has the stamina to play more than 60 games in a season? We’re definitely in uncharted territory.
It’s no secret that Markstrom is a fierce competitor who wants to play each and every night. When asked by reporters this week about playing in back-to-backs, he just laughed and said, “Yeah, I don’t mind it, it’s fun.” While it’s commendable that he wants to be a workhorse down the stretch, I don’t think it’s advisable, no matter how much fun it is. I’m not saying he’s fragile or completely injury-prone, but I do think the Flames’ number one guy plays his best hockey when he’s healthy and rested. Though, his head coach might not agree with my take.
Sutter Has a History of Riding His Number One Goaltenders
When Sutter took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Kings in 2011, he leaned heavily on his number one goaltender Jonathan Quick. In fact, Quick played 69 regular-season games en route to the Kings’ first Stanley Cup in 2012. Just three seasons later, he started a career-high 72 times. During his first go-around as Flames’ head coach, Sutter famously rode Miikka Kiprusoff 74-76 games per season. We’re definitely dealing with a guy who prefers to put all of his trust in veteran puck stoppers.
However, I think it might be high time for Sutter to start trusting his rookie backup again. Before Vladar lost three games in a row and found himself in the head coach’s doghouse, the 24-year-old Czech was actually having a good start to his tenure in Calgary. His 2.64 goals-against average (GAA) and .911 save percentage (SV%) are actually pretty solid for an NHL backup.
If the Flames are serious about protecting one of their most important assets from total burnout, they have to play their number two guy a lot more and manage Markstrom’s second-half starts very carefully. If he plays 35-plus games down the stretch, will he have anything left in the tank for the playoffs? Would he even make it to the playoffs in one piece? I think it’s best we don’t find out.
If Markstrom plays more than 27 of the final 39 games, I’ll be worried. And if that makes me a worrywart, then so be it.
Greg Tysowski is a former broadcast journalist who chose the exciting life of a stay-at-home dad for over a decade. He’s now a published author, parenting blogger and aspiring sports writer covering the Calgary Flames for The Hockey Writers. Greg is also a regular contributor to the weekly roundtable discussion “Flames Faceoff”, now streaming on YouTube and all podcast outlets.