VANCOUVER – In the season that saved his career, Jacob Markstrom carried the Utica Comets to a franchise-record 103 points in 2014-15 before taking his American Hockey League team to the Calder Cup final.
Markstrom, who began that season by clearing waivers after the Vancouver Canucks sent him back to the minors for the goalie’s fifth straight season in the AHL, played 23 straight playoff games for Utica and allowed two or fewer goals in 17 of them.
He was so impressive that later that June, at the 2015 National Hockey League entry draft in South Florida, Canucks general manager Jim Benning traded goalie Eddie Lack to make room for Markstrom on the NHL roster.
Few people would have guessed back then that five years later Markstrom would be around the edges of Vezina Trophy discussions, and that the Swede, now 30, would still be waiting to play his first NHL playoff game.
He hasn’t made the playoffs since he left Utica.
“It’s super exciting,” Markstrom said Monday as the Canucks opened summer camp ahead of the 24-team Stanley Cup tournament the NHL has planned. “These are the games you want to play. This is why you work out in the summer and this is why there’s a long grind over the course of the season. . . to be able to go out and get playoff experience and play those games. I’ve been missing that and looking forward to that for a long time.”
It has been 12 years since the Florida Panthers drafted Markstrom 31st overall, and a decade since he arrived in North America encumbered by the heavy label of “best goalie in the world not in the NHL.”
After all that time, Markstrom has had to wait a little longer – like the rest of us – for the coronavirus pandemic to allow the NHL’s attempted comeback for a playoff tournament that will mean as much to Markstrom as anyone on the Canucks.
But the preparation, like his career, is imperfect. Typically, goaltenders require more game reps than skaters do to get ready because so much of stopping the puck is reading and reacting and refining instincts.
Markstrom will get only one exhibition game before the Canucks open their five-game “play-in” series against the Minnesota Wild in Edmonton.
“No one has been in this situation before,” Markstrom said of the four-month shutdown, “so you’ve got to spend more time on the ice, you’ve got to work more than you usually have in a normal (off)season when you come back from skating for two or three months and you get two or three weeks in Vancouver before camp starts.
“And now it’s been two weeks quarantine with us skating and then right into training camp. So now more than ever, every time you step on the ice, you can’t afford to waste a day. You’ve got to get better every day and you got to put in the work.”
Markstrom has improved each of three seasons as the Canucks’ starter, and before the NHL closed in March had set a career-high with a .918 save rate that still didn’t do his year justice considering the shot quality he faced during a schedule twice interrupted by Markstrom’s return to Sweden to deal with the terminal cancer and subsequent death of his father.
The Canucks’ Most Valuable Player is also returning from late-February knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus.
Now all Markstrom has to do is get ready to play the most important games of his career – and the Canucks’ biggest games since they last made the playoffs in 2015.
“I think we’re going to try to play some scrimmages as much as possible to get into game shape,” Markstrom said. “It’s tough because it’s not games. You have your team to shoot at you and they shoot at you every day. Most guys, you have a semi-idea where they’re shooting instead of just getting a read. I think the biggest part is just getting your eyes used to getting pucks again.”
In Markstrom’s favour, at least, was a shutdown schedule not dramatically different than the goalkeeper’s normal off-season routine.
The Canucks are expected to scrimmage on Tuesday – Day 2 of training camp – to start players back towards game speed. Markstrom’s coach – the same one he had in Utica – believes in him.
“I’ve been with him quite a bit,” Travis Green said in conference call. “The guy loves to win, loves to compete. Players like that, they can’t wait for the playoffs.
“We’ve talked about getting to the playoffs and playing these types of games for a long time. So it’s not only him it’s important to, but he does love this part of the year, and big games. I know he’s excited to play for sure.
“We addressed a few things in our (team) meeting today and part of it was the new norm. What is the new normal? Things are different, obviously with COVID, the time of year, how we live our lives. There are so many different things. We’ve got to be fluid.
“We used words today with our group where they’ve got to be focussed, they’ve got to be adaptable. We don’t want to lose focus when things change, and they are going to change. You’re going to have to be adaptable. But you’ve got to be excited and embrace it.”