Seven years after leaving Sweden to conquer North America, Jacob Markstrom is finally an opening-night starter in the National Hockey League.
Vancouver Canucks coach Travis Green won’t confirm it — and he isn’t answering any more questions about who starts, thank you — but Markstrom, 27, should be in net Saturday when the team opens its regular season against the Edmonton Oilers.
It has been a long wait for Markstrom, upon whose head the label of “best goaltending prospect in the world” cut like a crown of thorns. The Canucks merely need him to be the best goaltender in their game on Saturday. That, at least, is possible.
And if Markstrom is outplayed by Cam Talbot and the Canucks lose, there’s a good chance Vancouver’s goalie on Tuesday against the Ottawa Senators will be Anders Nilsson.
But this kind of precariousness actually represents progress in hockey for Markstrom, who this time three years ago had just sailed through NHL waivers on his way back to the American Hockey League on what most people in Vancouver believed was a one-way ticket.
Saturday, he starts a three-year, US$11-million contract extension and will be given the first audition to replace departed starter Ryan Miller, whose signing in 2014 to replace Roberto Luongo effectively banished Markstrom to the Utica Comets.
Yes, the NHL has been some journey for Markstrom.
“I’m not in a position right now where I sit back and look at my career,” Markstrom said Wednesday. “I look at tomorrow, and the next day and the next day after that. I only have my eyes forward. It’s been seven years in North America for me and 2½ years in Sweden as a professional. But I don’t look back. I haven’t thought, ‘How long has this taken? What did I have to do to get to this point?’ I’m just excited about what tomorrow is going to bring.”
While that response was slightly disappointing to the writer, it is a prudent one for a goalie who wouldn’t have time to prepare mentally for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl if he allowed his mind to wander back through all the things that have gone wrong for him in the NHL.
Selected by the Florida Panthers with the first pick of the second round in the 2008 draft, Markstrom was a disaster in Sunrise although, to be fair, so were the Panthers.
After just 43 NHL appearances and 11 wins over four seasons, Markstrom was sent to the Canucks in the Luongo trade on March 4, 2014. Outgoing Canucks coach John Tortorella refused to play Markstrom, who was sent back to the AHL by Torts’ successor, Willie Desjardins, at the start of the next season.
There was Markstrom, 24 years old and unwanted in the NHL, back in the minors in upstate New York.
“I’m not going to lie about it; when you first get to Utica, it’s not a big town,” Markstrom said. “It’s not a new city. It’s an older town. Not a glamorous place to live. Obviously, I wasn’t happy getting sent down. But at the end of the year, that was the most fun I ever had playing hockey in my career.
“The fans were unbelievable and we had a great team. We didn’t play super fun hockey, but everybody played hard. That’s what I loved. That whole experience had a big impact on me.
“Ever since the Utica time, it has kind of felt like I took another step. Every summer from that point, I’ve kind of figured out in my head what it takes (for the next step).”
Instead of checking out on the Canucks and the NHL, Markstrom re-launched his career by going 32-22-7 for the Comets, posting a save rate of .934 and leading Utica to the Calder Cup final. His head coach then, as he is now, was Travis Green.
“He embraced it right away,” Green recalled Wednesday of Markstrom’s last AHL tour. “He’s a real competitive guy. He came in (and) didn’t have a chip on his shoulder or anything. He came in determined to play well and lead our team the best way he could in goal.
“We told him, ‘There’s a plan for you. We’ve got to get you up and running and be the goalie you can be.’”
Markstrom played so well that general manager Jim Benning made room for him back in the NHL by trading fan favourite and social-media star Eddie Lack to Carolina at the 2015 draft.
Markstrom backed up Miller the last two seasons and would have played more than 26 games last year had he not torn the meniscus in his knee in February during an absurd skills competition in which Vancouver teammates wheeled goalies around the ice on their knees.
In two years since his return from AHL, Markstrom has a .913 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average for the Canucks, a stark improvement on his Florida numbers of .898 and 3.20.
“I’ve just been in tough situations,” Markstrom said. “Letting in a goal (in the NHL) isn’t as bad as getting sent down to the minors or getting traded or sitting on the bench for 20 games. For sure it has made me a stronger person. And the goaltending job is a lot mental. You don’t be too high, don’t be too low, but just stay in a good place. For sure it helped me with my mental peace.”