Friends Markstrom, Nilsson ready for goalie battle in Vancouver

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VANCOUVER — This is the biggest goaltending drama in Vancouver Canucks’ history.

Which is like saying it’s the highest peak in the Himalayas, the fastest car in Indianapolis or the most superficial Bachelorette.

We’ve had front-row seats for Garth Snow, Felix Potvin, Dan Cloutier, Roberto LuongoCory Schneider, Luongo-Mike Gillis, Luongo-John Tortorella, Luongo-Tim Thomas, Eddie Lack-Jim Benning and Ryan MillerJacob Markstrom.

No wonder former Canuck general manager Brian Burke named Vancouver a "goalie graveyard." You can’t buy a latte without tripping over a tombstone. Oops, sorry about that Kevin Weekes.

But, honestly, this is huge.

The chain-link fencing in the octagon isn’t going to be high enough to contain these guys once they start swinging.

Markstrom, the incumbent Canuck goaltender, is six-foot-six. And as he sat beside Anders Nilsson during a press conference before the team opened its training camp this week, Markstrom looked like Danny DeVito next to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins. Nilsson is six-foot-seven and 230 pounds.

Nilsson didn’t move during the press conference. We suspected he’d actually been chiselled in granite. Then he stood up. So he is real, and so is this.

Nilsson and Markstrom fighting over the No. 1 goaltending job for the Canucks is going to be like two alpha giraffes on the Serengeti butting chests or necks or whatever giraffes butt when they’re angry.

Or maybe it won’t be like that it all, but this is, literally, a huge battle.

Importantly, it’s also a genuine one.

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A lot of people figured the free-agent departure this summer of veteran starting goalie Ryan Miller, coupled with the beginning of a three-year contract extension worth $11-million-US for Markstrom, represented a coronation for Miller’s backup.

General manager Benning’s free-agent signing of Nilsson from the Buffalo Sabres did little to dispel the notion in some that there would be a royal ascent for Markstrom.

Even Markstrom spoke at Tuesday’s presser like he is the No. 1 goaltender.

To be fair, the questions about Canuck goaltending skewed in that direction and athletes, like anyone, can be led in cross-examination.

But let us be clear or, more importantly, let Benning and Canuck coach Travis Green be clear.

"It’s going to be up to Jacob and Anders to determine how much they play," said Benning

"We think we have two guys who are at a stage in their careers where they’re ready for a challenge to see if they’re No. 1 goalies," Green said. "We’re going to find out."

The Canucks’ 13-feet of 27-year-old Swedish goaltenders did not allow a goal during Thursday’s scrimmage at Rogers Arena.

They were teammates at the 2010 world junior tournament — Markstrom was the starter for Sweden, Nilsson the backup — and have remained friends over the years. So although the battle to play in Vancouver may be fierce, it won’t be waged with animosity.

Each has been disappointed enough in the NHL to understand that everything is earned, nothing given.

"That’s how it should be," Markstrom said today. "The best goalie plays. Everybody is a professional here. When it comes to goalies, you have to stick together. We push each other on the ice and you want to be better than the other guy. But if Anders plays, I’m going to be supportive and help the team any way I can.

"I want to push Markstrom, I want to play games and I want to play a lot of games," Nilsson added. "But Markstrom is a really good goalie, too.

"Obviously, I’m familiar with the history here. They’ve had a ton of good goalies in this organization. There’s been a good, healthy competition here in the past. Goalies strive and they feed off each other and feel they have to push to play that next game; I think that’s why you’ve seen so many good goalies here. I’m hoping me and Markstrom can have the same healthy competition."

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

For all the angst, attention and web traffic the goaltending position has generated in Canuck Nation, the competition in the crease has never been acrimonious.

Luongo helped Schneider, just like he helped Eddie Lack after Schneider was traded first. Miller helped Markstrom.

Similarities between Markstrom and Nilsson go beyond their height and nationality.

Each has travelled an erratic path to this point.

A 31st-overall draft pick in 2008, Markstrom struggled to cope with expectations with the Florida Panthers when the organization was largely dysfunctional. He spent most of his first four seasons in the minors before being traded to the Canucks in the Luongo deal in 2014.

Seven months later he cleared waivers and went to the Utica Comets where, under current Canuck goalie coach Dan Cloutier, Markstrom turned his career around.

Benning traded away fan-favourite Lack to create a place on the Canucks for Markstrom, whom staff believed was stronger mentally and more likely to become a starter and team leader.

Nilsson was a 62nd-overall pick of the New York Islanders in 2009 and spent three seasons in the American League before bolting to the Kontinental Hockey League for a year.

He split time between the Edmonton Oilers and St. Louis Blues in 2015-16 before excelling as Robin Lehner’s backup in Buffalo last year. In 26 games, Nilsson had a 10-10-4 record with a .923 save percentage. Markstrom’s was near identical in Vancouver last season, posting a 10-11-3 record and .910 save percentage in the same number of starts.

Markstrom for his part is excited to have Nilsson join him on one of the largest tandems in history.

"But Nilsson is huge. He’s a monster," Markstrom said. "He’s the guy you want on your team."

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