VANCOUVER – When he was making a super-human 49 saves on Wednesday, it looked like Jacob Markstrom was playing with the strength of 20 men. In a way he was. Twenty, minimum.
The Vancouver Canucks goalie is having the greatest season of his NHL career while going through one of the worst times in his personal life, having lost his father, Anders, to cancer back home in Sweden in November.
Markstrom’s 3-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on the night the Canucks retired Daniel and Henrik Sedin’s numbers boosted his save percentage to .918. NHL.com correspondent Kevin Woodley, who runs a goaltending website in Vancouver, tweeted Thursday that proprietary data indicates Markstrom is the league’s runaway leader in goal-differential at plus-22.1 – the difference between the goals he has allowed and the number of pucks that should have beaten him based on micro-analyzed shot quality. For context, Boston Bruins starter Tuukka Rask is second at plus-15.2, based on data from the private firm Clear Sight Analytics.
That’s 22 extra goals saved in 41 games for Markstrom, who has been a massive factor in the Canucks’ surge to the Pacific Division lead. No wonder there’s growing talk on the West Coast that the 30-year-old should be in the Vezina Trophy discussion this season.
The most compelling part of Markstrom’s story – he has seven wins this season when facing 40 or more shots – is that he has turned himself into an elite NHL starter while mourning his father’s death at age 59.
“When you go through tough times, you need support,” Markstrom told reporters on Friday as the Canucks, near the end of an emotional week, rested ahead of Sunday’s game at Rogers Arena against the Anaheim Ducks. “You need friends, family, you need teammates, coaches to kind of (guide you) … so you go down the right path. Make you feel like you have support. This team has done a great job of that. It’s been tough, yes. And it’s still tough. But … you’ve just got to keep going and keep pushing.”
The strength and support of those 20 players in the Canucks dressing room, and many more people outside of it, is why Markstrom said he feels his starts are a chance to honour those helping him.
“Relief, I don’t know if that’s the right word,” Markstrom said of the mental simplicity of playing. “It’s more honouring, I feel like. You want to do everybody proud. Not only teammates, but family that are here with us and that aren’t. You think about it all the time. You can’t not do this.”
“We all have each other’s back and we’re a family here,” teammate J.T. Miller said. “The only thing I can do as a teammate is to be there and support him and be there for him and play hard for him. He gives so much to us as a goalie, it’s easy to play for a guy like that. He’s super-respected in our locker room and he’s a great guy. That comes as no surprise that we’re playing for him and he’s obviously playing for us.”
It was only five years ago that Markstrom, acquired in the 2014 Roberto Luongo trade after badly failing in Florida to meet expectations as an over-hyped prospect, sailed through NHL waivers on his way to one more season in the American Hockey League.
But Vancouver general manager Jim Benning kept him in 2015 ahead of Eddie Lack, whose trade outraged much of Canuck Nation, and the team’s hiring of goaltending coach Ian Clark before last season turbo-charged Markstrom’s improvement.
Under Clark, Markstrom rebuilt and narrowed his stance, which allowed him to move more efficiently and gave the six-foot-six netminder more “reach” to make difficult saves. The better movement helps Markstrom track the puck and stay ahead of the play.
“I feel like I’m taking steps every day,” Markstrom said. “We don’t look back to what we’ve done, we always look forward and try and add stuff to make me a better goalie. It’s so rewarding to have that every day.
“I don’t look back. I haven’t played a playoff game yet and we haven’t won anything as a team. For me personally, I feel like I’ve evolved my game and I’m becoming better every day, but there’s a lot of steps left to take. I don’t look back and I’m happy; when I start looking back, that’s not a good sign.”
Looking ahead then, Benning and Markstrom’s agent, Pat Morris, are still trying to find some traction in contracts talks. The team and the goalie both want Markstrom to stay in Vancouver, but it’s a complex landscape and it may be challenging for the Canucks to pay the Swede close enough to market value to get him to stay. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency on July 1.
“I love it here and I want to stay here for sure,” Markstrom said. “But I don’t think about it too much. I’ve got this contract this year and then we’re going to figure out the rest. Every time I put that jersey on, it’s an honour and I love being out here in Rogers Arena in front of the home fans.
“I feel like the fans are very deserving of having a playoff team here. They’ve been really patient and loyal throughout this rebuild. Right now, we have given ourselves a good chance and put ourselves in a good spot, but we’ve got to keep pushing.”
With his play, Markstrom is becoming more valuable by the week. Plus, there’s the Vezina Trophy conjecture.
“It’s obviously nice to hear your name in those discussions,” he said. “But if you believe everything you read, you’re going to be misinformed. Not by you guys. You always tell the truth.”
We’ll bookmark that last quote.