VANCOUVER – From the day questions about his contract began, which was roughly the day training camp opened in a different lifetime last September, Jacob Markstrom said he wanted to remain with the Vancouver Canucks and as long as he played well he was confident it would work out that way.
Then the 30-year-old goaltender not only had the best season of his career, but one of the best years by any National Hockey League goalie this season.
And yet, here we are.
The worst pandemic of our lifetime, which is collapsing economies much bigger and far-reaching than the NHL’s, has created uncertainty as extraordinary as the coronavirus itself.
Despite wishful planning about a potential return of hockey in July, nobody knows when major professional sports can be safely resumed. And no one has any idea what next season will look like.
There are a few billion people as uncertain about the future as Markstrom is, but he is experienced enough to understand that his problems ahead of unrestricted free agency are grossly insignificant compared to what countless others are facing in the time of COVID-19.
“With all the other stuff, hockey has kind of become not so important with everything going on around the world,” Markstrom told reporters in a conference call from Sweden on Wednesday. “Obviously, I would have liked to have a long-term deal and know what I’m going to do for the next few years here. But that’s not the case right now. Nobody knows what’s going to happen this year. Hopefully, we get back playing. Even next year, and cap hits and all that stuff, hockey is kind of secondary.”
In a season interrupted by the death of his father in December and halted on Feb. 24 by knee surgery about two weeks before the NHL shut down, Markstrom went 23-16-4 with a .918 save percentage that was fifth in the NHL among starting goaltenders. Shot-quality metrics push his ranking higher than that and Markstrom, who won seven times when his team yielded more than 40 shots to the opposition, was easily the Canucks’ most valuable player.
When the league gets around to handing out awards, Markstrom’s name will appear on a lot of Vezina Trophy ballots.
Before the nightmare began, Markstrom was having a dream season for an essential player on an expiring contract. He was in a position to command more money and term than the $11-million-US deal he signed three years ago.
Suddenly everything seems to have changed — except his importance to the Canucks.
“Obviously, it’s been a little while since I was without a contract,” he said from Gavle by video-conference. “But I’ve been in this situation before (where) you never know where you’re going to be playing or if you’re going to be playing. When I was in Utica (in the AHL in 2014-15), that was the last year of my contract and I thought it could be my last season in North America. There’s obviously uncertainties. I’d rather know where I’m going to be and know what’s going to happen in the future. But with everything that’s going on that nobody could predict, it’s kind of taken a back seat to everything else.
“In my mind, I want to stay in Vancouver. That’s my goal. The season isn’t over this year, either. I’m still hoping we can come back and play and make a push in the playoffs here. It’s going to be tough to get fans in the building, but give the people and city of Vancouver something to cheer for. That’s pretty much 100 per cent of my mindset. I’m still a Vancouver Canuck and I’m super proud of being it. I have no plans of leaving.”
General manager Jim Benning has no plans on letting Markstrom leave, either. But, again, these times are unprecedented and it’s impossible to know what the salary-cap will or won’t allow the Canucks to do.
“You want to play for somebody that wants you,” Markstrom said. “I think everybody feels the same. I know everybody in the organization from ownership, to everybody working the locker room and the front office. I’m very comfortable in Vancouver.
“I think there’s a very bright future (for the Canucks). It’s here, it’s not even around the corner. I think it’s here right now.”
They’re just waiting for the world to brighten a little, too.