Flames’ Playoff Potential Rests on Jacob Markstrom’s Shoulders

Calgary Flames star goaltender Jacob Markstrom has found himself under a magnifying glass after his shocking second-round playoff performance last May against the Edmonton Oilers. Simply put, a 5.12 goals against average (GAA) and an .852 save percentage (SV%) are not going to cut it in any postseason series, especially not for someone considered to be a top-tier NHL puck-stopper. Now, athletes are human too and there’s not yet a reason for Flames fans to panic, but questions have certainly emerged.

When Flames general manager Brad Treliving signed Markstrom to a six-year, $36 million contract in Oct. 2020, it was because he expected the 6-foot-6 Swede to be his team’s new franchise goalie. At that point, the former second-round draft pick was 30 years old, sporting a 2.80 career GAA and a .911 SV% in 272 regular-season games with the Florida Panthers and Vancouver Canucks. Many goalies take time to reach their full potential, and Treliving clearly believed that Markstrom was an ascending player.

“Goalies mature at different times,” he told media members at the time. “I think we’re getting [Markstrom] at the prime of his career, to be perfectly honest with you. We expect him to be a really good goaltender. He keeps himself in great shape.” 

Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom makes a save on Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom makes a save on Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)

Markstrom’s first season in Calgary wasn’t spectacular. In 2020-21, he finished with a 22-19-2 record, a 2.66 GAA and a .904 SV% in a pandemic-shortened 56-game season. The Flames finished fifth in the all-Canadian North Division, missing the playoffs by landing four points behind the Montreal Canadiens. 

The season after that, Markstrom inserted himself into the ranks of the NHL’s elite. The Gavle native finished second in Vezina Trophy voting in 2021-22 behind New York Rangers wunderkind Igor Shesterkin. His GAA and SV% improved to 2.22 and .922 respectively, and the Flames went 37-15-9 with him in net. Calgary fans were excited, and for good reason, as their team returned to the Pacific Division and won it.

At first, Markstrom kept his strong play going into the postseason. He allowed a total of 11 goals in a tightly-checked seven-game grind against the Dallas Stars, and while he didn’t equal the heroics of Dallas Stars netminder Jake Oettinger (nobody did), his overall SV% of .943 in that series was enough to boost the Flames into the second round.

It was there, against the Oilers, that Markstrom faltered and fell. 

Drowning in Oil: Edmonton Had the Flames’ Number Last Season

There were some mitigating factors to consider here. Markstrom faced two of the NHL’s biggest offensive threats in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and the players in front of him didn’t do enough to help him out. The Flames’ top line of Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk were outscored 7-4 at even strength, as Sportsnet’s Shayna Goldman notes. Flames defensive stalwart Chris Tanev also played two games in a compromised state after injuring his shoulder against the Stars, and he would have been vital in limiting the damage McDavid and Draisaitl can do.

The Oilers even proved to be the deeper team. Second-line winger Zach Hyman, known more for his all-around complementary game than pure offense, netted six goals in five playoff tilts against the Flames and power forward Evander Kane scored five of his own while riding shotgun with McDavid. Meanwhile, Lindholm, Gaudreau and Tkachuk only managed six goals as a line.

Having said all that, Markstrom’s numbers still ballooned to unacceptable proportions. He failed to show much of the skill and poise that put him in the Vezina Trophy conversation, and he could not consistently make big saves when the Flames needed them. Rarely, if ever, can a playoff team survive such a cataclysmic collapse from its No.1 goaltender. 

Related: Flames vs. Oilers: How They Stack Up Heading into 2022-23

It’s also worth noting that the Oilers in particular have been a difficult opponent for Markstrom lately, as he allowed four or more goals in three of his four regular-season matchups against them last season. Obviously, they are one of the Flames’ key divisional rivals, and it’s quite possible the two will meet again in the 2023 Playoffs. Markstrom and his teammates can’t allow the Oilers to be their kryptonite if they wish to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup anytime soon.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers Jacob Markstrom Calgary Flames
Jacob Markstrom of the Calgary Flames makes a save against Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

The worst-case scenario for the Flames is if Markstrom were to regress the way that some former Vezina Trophy finalists have been known to. Take Philipp Grubauer for example: in 2020-21, the German goalie was named one of the NHL’s three best goalies alongside Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury. Last season, he won just 18 of his 55 games with a GAA of 3.16 and a SV% of .889. Flames fans hope that Markstrom experiences no such slump in 2022-23.

That said, Grubauer went from the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche to the vulnerable Seattle Kraken over his last two campaigns, while Markstrom will enjoy relative stability with the Flames. Due to the additions of Jonathan Huberdeau, Mackenzie Weegar and Nazem Kadri, they will enter battle this season with a roster comparable in overall strength to the one they had last season – at least on paper. Treliving and his management staff have done everything they can to put a robust team in front of him. Now he needs to do his part.

Can Daniel Vladar Help?

One other thing that Flames coaches may or may not consider here is Markstrom’s workload. The Swede played 63 regular season games last season, and fatigue might have factored into his brutal playoff performance against the Oilers. NHL teams don’t often deploy their starters as much as they did in the past – gone are the days of Miikka Kiprusoff starting 70-plus games a year for the C of Red. Even Vasilevskiy, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with a Vezina and a Conn Smythe Trophy under his belt, has made 60 or more regular-season appearances only twice since the 2016-17 campaign when he became the Tampa Bay Lightning’s No. 1 netminder.

In fact, some in the professional hockey world have considered the idea of a three-goalie rotation akin to a platoon of relief pitchers in baseball. This may sound radical, but as Ken Campbell points out, the Flames and Winnipeg Jets were the only NHL squads to employ just two netminders in 2021-22 (from ‘The NHL’s Crease Crisis’, The Hockey News, Vol. 75 No. 16). Some teams even used more than three, such as the New Jersey Devils who deployed a league-high seven puck-stoppers last season.

Of course, franchises like the Devils and Vegas Golden Knights experienced significant injuries to their goaltending units, forcing them to parade a number of different faces through their creases. The Flames won’t require a three-man rotation as long as Markstrom stays healthy, but they do need him to be in peak condition for the playoffs. So, why not explore the possibility of giving him more rest during the regular season?

If the Flames find themselves in good shape in the standings, head coach Darryl Sutter could lean on 25-year-old backup netminder Daniel Vladar to spell Markstrom. He went 13-6-2 last season with a 2.75 GAA and a .906 SV%. The 6-foot-5 Czech product has great length, athleticism and lateral mobility, and while he’s considered somewhat raw, he still has time to develop his game. If he proves to be a reliable No. 2, the Flames could ask him to bear more of the load. 

Dan Vladar Calgary Flames
Dan Vladar, Calgary Flames (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In any case, the time is now for Markstrom to answer the questions directed at him. He is 32 years old and coming off a Vezina-caliber season in the prime of his career. If the Flames are to reach a Western Conference Final anytime soon, he will need to prove that he can elevate his play when it matters the most.

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