The night was March 26, 2019. The Vancouver Canucks already had an “e” next to their name in the standings. There were just a handful of games left in the season, a season in which many of the Canucks’ young players proved themselves. Among them was Swedish rookie sensation Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, and Brock Boeser. Even Quinn Hughes, in the few games he played, proved he will be a key piece to the Canucks core for years to come.
A less talked-about player, however, is goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Although acquired back in March 2014 in exchange for Canucks’ all-time leader in wins, Roberto Luongo, Markstrom only just emerged as a true number one goaltender this season. He was wrapping up a personal-best season, and with just a few games remaining and not a whole lot left to play for, you wouldn’t think it to be all that strange if a player let his foot off the gas pedal just a little bit. That’s what it appeared Markstrom did on March 26, at least that’s what it looked like to Canucks’ goaltending coach, and 2020 free agent, Ian Clark.
Markstrom has shown flashes of greatness all throughout his professional career, dating back to when he was a member of Brynas IF of the SHL, playing in his hometown of Gavle, Sweden at just 17 years old. Over two full seasons with Brynas, Markstrom posted a .917 and .927 save percentage, respectively. Those numbers were good enough to get him drafted 31st overall by the Florida Panthers at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Markstrom Finds Consistency
The story on Markstrom is an inability to find the level of consistency needed to be a successful goaltender in the NHL. There were games where Markstrom would carry the Canucks to two points when they had no business even being in it, but there were also games that Markstrom bobbled for the Canucks. The level of consistency just wasn’t there.
That all changed this season, when Markstrom found that level of consistency. He began regularly stealing games for the Canucks, something he did only once in a blue moon in past seasons. I will tell you this, if it weren’t for Markstrom, the Canucks would have never been playing meaningful games up until March. So where did this resurgence come from? The answer is simple — goaltending coach Ian Clark. Maybe you’ve heard of him, maybe you haven’t, but the Canucks goaltending coach may just be the most important free agent on the Canucks books next offseason.
Clark, a Vancouver native, joined as goaltending coach of the Canucks in the 2002-03 season, and stayed with the team up until 2009-10, working closely with Luongo. Clark then went on to coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the next seven years, where he shaped Sergei Bobrovsky into the elite two-time Vezina Trophy winning goaltender he is today. Surely you’ve heard of him. Without Clark this past season, we likely wouldn’t be talking about Markstrom at all. Other teams will be interested in Clark’s services, especially whichever team lands Bobrovsky in free agency this offseason. But what is it that makes Clark such a great coach?
A Fired Up Ian Clark
Back to March 26, the night that Markstrom appeared to let his foot off the gas pedal, according to Clark. Credit to the late and great Jason Botchford for sharing this story with all of us, in his last article ever written for The Athletic. Markstrom had just allowed five goals to the Anaheim Ducks, and as a result, Clark was not happy with his number one goaltender. After summoning Markstrom into his office, a fired up Clark asks Markstrom if he has ever seen runners who let up when they near the finish line.
The following quote tells the story of a goaltending coach who expects nothing but the absolute highest level of effort from his players.
“Are you letting up? Are you going to let up here at the end? Or are you going to sprint right through that finish line? You’re going off the path and you can’t do it. Get it back to who you were.”-“How Ian Clark Reinvented Jacob Markstrom,” The Athletic, 04/24/2019
As we all know, Markstrom took his coach’s advice and finished his season strong with a 38-save performance against the Dallas Stars, followed by a 30-save performance against the Nashville Predators in his final start of the 2018-19 season.
Clark might just be the best goalie coach in the entire league, and if not, he’s certainly the best goalie coach for Markstrom and young backup Thatcher Demko. Markstrom later discussed how vital this conversation with his fired up goalie coach was for him. He finished the season strong as a result, but is now also painfully aware of how there’s no time to admire your work and let up in the best league in the world. Not if you want to stick around, that is. As Botchford wrote in his last story, Clark tells his goaltenders to view their games as a skyscraper with no top.
“Okay, we just climbed that flight of stairs up, now let’s turn the bend and do another. And another. And we’re never going to stop. That’s just the way it is. That is an important philosophical approach because we’re never there. As soon as we’re there, we get comfortable.”Ian Clark, via Jason Botchford, 2019
Markstrom had a breakout season in 2018-19. A breakout season that we likely don’t see if he’s not working with Ian Clark. So while Troy Stecher, Jake Virtanen, and Adam Gaudette will all be restricted free agents next offseason, each playing key roles on the Canucks’ current roster, the most important person the Canucks need to sign next offseason doesn’t even appear on the roster.
I can’t help but imagine that there will be multiple teams gunning for Clark’s services next offseason, especially whichever team lands Bobrovsky in free agency this year. Keeping Clark around is something of the utmost importance for the Canucks, because, without good goaltending, it’s difficult to be a successful team in today’s NHL.