Hockey is a team game, but goaltenders have proven time and time again to have a larger effect on a team’s success than any other player. For the Vancouver Canucks, this has certainly been true of starting netminder Jacob Markstrom.
Markstrom was the Canucks’ most valuable player through the first half of the season. Without him, things could look a whole lot worse for the Canucks in the standings.
Last season marked a resurgence for Markstrom after goaltending coach Ian Clark returned to Vancouver and made changes to his game. The most noticeable tweak was Markstrom’s positioning, which was always a knock on the agile 6’6 goaltender in the past.
As important as the more practical improvements to Markstrom’s game have been, Clark’s skill as a motivator shouldn’t be discounted, either. The late Jason Botchford chronicled a tale of Markstrom taking his foot off the proverbial gas pedal late last season that serves as a great example. The Canucks weren’t going to make the playoffs, and the season was a write-off, but that didn’t stop Clark from hauling Markstrom into his office for a stern meeting.
“You ever see those runners who just let up as they come close to that finish line?” a fiery Clark asked Markstrom. “Are you letting up? Are you going to let up here at the end? Or are you going to sprint right through that finish line? You’re going off the path and you can’t do it. Get it back to who you were.”
Markstrom would later describe the encounter as a watershed moment in his career. Clark has instilled the belief into his goaltenders that they can never afford to stop improving.
“I tell them to think about it like a skyscraper that has no top. Okay, we just climbed that flight of stairs up, now let’s turn the bend and do another. And another. And we’re never going to stop. That’s just the way it is. That is an important philosophical approach because we’re never there. As soon as we’re there, we get comfortable.”
That approach can apparently result in a Vezina-calibre performance when executed correctly. It’s exactly what Clark accomplished with Sergei Bobrovsky during his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and we’re seeing signs of the same with Markstrom.
His former penchant for cracking under pressure is another demon Markstrom seems to have exorcised. His habit of giving up back-breaking goals early in games has disappeared, and he’s been able to come up with timely saves to keep his team within striking distance. Most importantly, his play from late last season has carried over into this year, and he’s poised to finally put up a full season of above-average play.
Markstrom has shown he has the ability to steal a game on any given night; and has risen to the occasion on a number of nights when the rest of team looked like their heads weren’t in the game. One example was December 12 against the Carolina Hurricanes, where the Canucks conceded 43 shots while registering just 25 of their own before beating Petr Mrazek on their 26th and final shot of the game in OT.
Markstrom was so good in that game that it even prompted a response from the opposing team’s twitter account.
Can Jacob Markstrom just chill for a second?
— Carolina Hurricanes (@Canes) December 13, 2019
When it comes to goaltenders around the league this season, Markstrom has been one of the best.
Goaltending Report: Courtesy of @csahockey Expected Goals Against +/- Differential (Starters Top 5)
1. Lehner +12.14
2. Binnington +11.46
3. Markstrom +11.28
4. Halak +10.98
5. Lundqvist +8.96
— Stephen Valiquette (@VallysView) January 4, 2020
He’s faced an absurd amount of shots during the Canucks’ win streak, and oddly enough, the team has actually struggled to close out games when they’ve faced a low number of shots. They’re 6-0 when Markstrom faces 40 shots or more, but are 3-7-3 when their opponent takes less than 30 shots on their starting netminder. Obviously, the Canucks’ winning formula is not to allow teams to take a seemingly endless number of shots on their goaltender, but it is an interesting stat nonetheless.
One important thing to remember is that the majority of these low-shot affairs that the Canucks lost came in November, a month in which the Canucks played some of their worst hockey since, well, last November.
The Canucks need Markstrom to continue his dominance into the second half of the season if they hope to make the playoffs. The Canucks have a tough schedule for parts of both January and February, so it will be crucial for Markstrom to stay consistent. He’s been their MVP so far, and he needs to keep it up for them to stay in the playoff hunt.
Elias Pettersson, J.T. Miller, and Quinn Hughes are also frequently listed as MVP candidates, but if any of these players falter over the second half of the season, it’s hard to imagine that having a more negative impact on their playoff chances than Markstrom taking a step back.
It’s difficult to measure the isolated impact skaters have in comparison to that of a goaltender, but the Canucks finally have some secondary scoring that could certainly help to carry the load in the event that Pettersson Miller, or Hughes’ point production declines.
If Markstrom implodes, on the other hand, Thatcher Demko remains relatively unproven, and has struggled at times throughout the season, even if he’s played reasonably well on most occasions that he’s been called upon.
Ideally, he can stay hot and the Canucks can roll with him right into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A couple of great months from a starting netminder can be enough to turn a team from a basement-dweller to a legitimate contender, even if things haven’t gone well for the rest of the team. Don’t believe me? Ask the St. Louis Blues.
The Canucks have flaws, and on a night where Markstrom isn’t at his best against one of the best teams in the league, those flaws are magnified greatly, as they were during the Canucks’ 9-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night. If that’s any indication of how the team is going to perform when Markstrom has an off night, they need him to be every bit as good as he was in the first half of the season to have any chance of staying in the playoff race.