VANCOUVER – No Vancouver Canuck hates losing more than Jacob Markstrom. And no goalie in the National Hockey League may lose more games this season than he does.
For the first time, and at age 28, Markstrom starts an NHL regular season Wednesday as his team’s undisputed No. 1 goaltender. But on the rebuilding Canucks, who managed only 73 points last season before Hank and Danny Sedin retired, being the No. 1 goalie could mean losing 35 games.
Ultimately, if the Canucks evolve and the young players they incorporate bloom, Markstrom will have to prove he is good enough to start on a winning team. But this season, his biggest challenge will be developing the mental armour to withstand all the losses likely coming his way.
"I’m not changing in any way how I feel or approach the game," Markstrom told Sportsnet. "It’s 0-0 when the puck drops and I believe deep inside that we’re going to win. At this level, you have to have that. You need everybody to have that.
"We need all five guys (on the ice) to be successful as a hockey team. But I’m the last guy. Absolutely you feel responsible. I think that’s why I became a goalie, too. It’s fun when it goes good and it’s not so fun when it doesn’t go good."
There hasn’t been much fun around the Canucks the last three seasons.
After stagnating for four years with the Florida Panthers, Markstrom finally proved he could be an NHL goalie with the Canucks, who acquired him in the Roberto Luongo trade in 2014.
The six-foot-six Swede, who sailed through waivers four years ago and saved his North American career with an outstanding season in the American Hockey League, spent two seasons as Ryan Miller’s backup in Vancouver before handily winning the starting job last season against Anders Nilsson.
Markstrom went 23-26-7 and his .912 save percentage represented "average" NHL goaltending. But he was considerably worse than average in the middle of the season when, Markstrom admits, he let losing affect his preparation and performance.
"I was getting too frustrated after games, losing sleep," Markstrom recalled. "You want to succeed so badly, you want to help your teammates. And when you’re not coming up with a timely save and helping your teammates win, it’s tough. That’s why that slump was way longer than I wanted it to be. I got so frustrated with not winning. I was still thinking about the game a couple of days ago when I had the new game coming up. That’s something I’ve learned from. But I still hate losing more than I like winning."
Those lessons and Markstrom’s mental strength will be severely tested this season on a Canuck team that stumbled through the pre-season 1-6 and is expected to struggle mightily to score goals, even with rookie-of-the-year candidate Elias Pettersson replacing Henrik Sedin as the second-line centre.
Markstrom also is working with a new goalie coach after Dan Cloutier relinquished duties for family reasons and the Canucks hired Cloutier’s former teacher, Ian Clark, who spent the last seven years in Columbus where he helped turn Sergei Bobrovsky into a Vezina Trophy winner.
"You carry a big burden as a goaltender, obviously," Clark said. "We know Marky is a competitive guy. We know Marky wants to do his teammates right, and he wants desperately to do the franchise right. That’s the kind of guy he is. (But) this is a franchise obviously that has a youth movement happening. The No. 1 thing is he has to stay within his own process. He has to be very disciplined with that. It’s not just something you snap your fingers with."
Clark and Markstrom are working on technical changes, but Markstrom said he needs to be able to play games unencumbered by thoughts about mechanics. This may explain why he stopped only 88.2 per cent of shots in three pre-season starts, although Markstrom’s problems paled in comparison to his team’s.
"He has a very high compete level," Clark said. "He’s very much a leader in accepting the responsibility he has to help and anchor the group. His coachability, his ability to process things — these are essential for his evolution to continue. Are we a finished product yet? Of course not. If you’re truly passionate about growth and development and being the best, I’m not sure you’re ever a finished product. But we’re feeling good about components of his game."
Citing the calibre of shots he faces in practice from teammates like Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, Nikolay Goldobin and Pettersson, Markstrom said the Canucks can score enough goals to win.
And winning is all he cares about. The Canucks open their season Wednesday against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena.
"I said to Pettersson, if we win, we’re all successful," Markstrom smiled. "And if the goalie doesn’t let any goals in, we’re going to win."
As long as his team scores at least once.
• Canuck general manager Jim Benning said it was "upsetting" to waive 29-year-old veteran Sam Gagner in order to keep room on his 23-man roster for younger players like Goldobin, Brendan Leipsic and Tyler Motte. A free-agent signing by Benning just 15 months ago, Gagner has two years and $6.2-million-US owed to him by Vancouver.
"I said all summer that if our young players come in and they show they’re ready to play, we want to give them an opportunity," Benning told reporters. "I’m going to be perfectly honest: with these young kids coming now that we have in our system, this could happen more and more going forward. When these young kids are ready to play, we’re going to have to make tough decisions in moving older players out to give them a chance to play."