The Vancouver Canucks are doing much better than anyone predicted at the start of the 2018-19 season. For Canuck fans, there are two obvious reasons.
First, Elias Pettersson has emerged as bona fide star. Watch him walking into the locker room prior to a game and he looks a bit “bookish.” On the ice, he’s little short of amazing. In less than half a season, he’s established himself as the team’s current star and bright light for the future. He’s been the greatest surprise of the Canucks’ season.
But a close second, and perhaps an even bigger surprise, is the Canucks’ strong goaltending led by Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom’s been good, and to my eye, is getting better game by game. This wasn’t at all expected this season, but with Pettersson carrying the offense and Markstrom keeping his team in games, good things are happening. The Canucks are in the middle of the playoff race.
Furthermore, unless something odd or debilitating happens, such as a notable injury, it looks as if the Canucks’ goaltending might be set for at least the near future. At this moment, Markstrom is the starter and young prospect Thatcher Demko looks like a capable backup.
Markstrom’s Road to the Present
This season isn’t turning out as predicted, and that’s a good for Markstrom. Funny thing about the NHL is every season there seems to be a surprise. On Oct. 1, a Sportsnet article predicted Markstrom would lose more games than any goalie in the NHL. Obviously, he hasn’t. To be specific, the article noted:
“No Vancouver Canuck hates losing more than Jacob Markstrom. And no goalie in the National Hockey League may lose more games this season than he does.
“For the first time, and at age 28, Markstrom starts an NHL regular season … as his team’s undisputed No. 1 goaltender. But on the rebuilding Canucks, who managed only 73 points last season before Hank and Danny Sedin retired, being the No. 1 goalie could mean losing 35 games.
“Ultimately, if the Canucks evolve and the young players they incorporate bloom, Markstrom will have to prove he is good enough to start on a winning team. But this season, his biggest challenge will be developing the mental armour to withstand all the losses likely coming his way.”
In short, didn’t happen. In fact, with the season more than half completed (50 games played, 32 games to go), Markstrom has a strong record of 19-12 (in 36 games played). That’s far better than Canucks’ pundits expected when the season started. In fact, it’s probably better than most hockey experts thought would happen in Markstrom’s career.
It took time for Markstrom to make it here. He practically vegetated in his four seasons with the Florida Panthers. Just four years ago, no one wanted him. He was put on waivers, with no takers. Things changed in the 2014-15 season, when the 6-foot-6 Swede had an outstanding season with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate the Utica Comets. In 32 games, Markstrom’s record was 22-7-2, with a 1.88 goals-against average (GAA) and a .934 save percentage (SV%).
That strong AHL season gave Markstrom a chance. He took it and spent two seasons as Ryan Miller’s backup before winning the starting job last season in a battle with Anders Nilsson. Now, the Canucks are so confident at goal that they recently traded Nilsson, put Mike McKenna on waivers and called up Demko as Markstrom’s backup.
Markstrom’s recent work has been excellent. To me, as a fan, he looks good in goal. He’s confident, moves well, centers up to the shooter and tracks the puck well. He’s actually getting better as the games go by.
In his recent win against the Detroit Red Wings, Markstrom stopped 35 of 37 shots. He was also sharp against the Panthers, blocking 23 of 24 shots and winning 5-1. He allowed two goals on 30 shots in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers, which makes him 2-0-1 over his last three starts with a 1.62 GAA and a .945 SV%.
He also had a stunning December, going 8-1-0 with a 1.66 GAA and a .943 SV%. For the season, he’s 18-13-4 with a .908 SV% and a 2.80 GAA.
Where Things Stand Right Now
As the 28-year-old Markstrom builds momentum, so does the team. Now, Canuck fans are thinking, “Hey, this team can win,” and, that’s the third surprise of the season.
No doubt, Demko is a prospect. Although his body of work is small (two NHL victories), he has played well. He will continue to be viewed as the Canucks’ goalie of the future. But, in the short-term, there’s no doubt Markstrom is the team’s starter in goal.
That he’s getting better at age 28 should be no surprise for those who have watched the curious growth and development of goalies over the years. Tim Thomas, at 37, was the oldest player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Dominik Hasek didn’t become a starter until he was nearly 30.
Tony Esposito didn’t play his first NHL game until age 25. Glenn Hall, at 36, went to the St. Louis Blues in the 1967 Expansion Draft and there teamed up with the ancient Jacques Plante to take the Blues to three consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances. Gump Worsley, at age 38, went 11-0 in the playoffs to lead the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup.
So, stranger things have happened than an “older” goalie like Markstrom becoming better with age. It should be fun for Canuck fans to watch the goalie development of their surprising team.