VANCOUVER — Jacob Markstrom has never had to work harder in the crease than this season, but the Vancouver Canucks goalie doesn’t mind because the game has never felt slower as a result.
“Games are so much tougher on the body than previous years because I’m trying to stay a step ahead and it’s tough on the cardio,” the 29-year-old said. “But the game feels so much slower, if that makes sense.”
It does when you understand the focus of Markstrom’s work with new goaltending coach Ian Clark is giving him an advantage with his positioning and vision, buying him time to process the play.
There are several tactical and technical elements that have evolved this season to keep Markstrom ahead of the game, from establishing more purposeful positioning early in end-zone sequences, to a narrower, more upright stance to facilitate quicker movement and better sightlines, to how he has moved into and off his posts, especially when the puck is behind the net. All have played a role in helping Markstrom establish himself as a No. 1 NHL goalie more than a decade after he was selected by the Florida Panthers in the second round (No. 31) of the 2008 NHL Draft.
“I don’t think I can pick one,” Markstrom said when asked about the biggest change. “The main part is staying ahead of the game, which is 10 different smaller things.”
The statistical results may not jump off the page behind the Canucks (29-32-9), who have struggled with injuries to defensemen and are on pace to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth straight season, but Markstrom has set an NHL career high with 25 wins, and his .913 save percentage, which ranks 13th among NHL goalies who have played in at least 35 games, is even better when you add some context.
Markstrom’s save percentage this season is below his full-season NHL best .915 in Vancouver in 2015-16 and barely above his .912 from last season. But this is the first full season he has been above the NHL average for save percentage, which was .915 in 2015-16 and dropped to .912 last season and .909 this season, and he has done it facing the third-most shots in the League (1,664).
Like a lot of goalies amid a breakthrough season, Markstrom is quick to point out his isn’t an overnight success story.
Often touted as the best goalie not in the NHL early in his career, Markstrom had a .943 save percentage to help Sweden to a silver medal and was named the top goalie at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship but struggled to stick with the Panthers.
Markstrom played 43 games through four seasons in Florida before being traded to Vancouver as part of a package for goalie Roberto Luongo on March 4, 2014. But he cleared waivers and played most of the following season with Utica of the American Hockey League. He spent his first two seasons with the Canucks working with then-goaltending coach Roland Melanson in the NHL and Dan Cloutier in the AHL, reining in aggressive play that opened holes in his 6-foot-6 frame.
“When I first got here with [Melanson], we worked every day for hours, repetition, repetition and that was the first time I understood what it would take and how much work you have to put in,” said Markstrom, 25-20-8 with a 2.75 goals-against average in 53 games this season. “Now a lot of people I talk to say, ‘I like the way you play,’ and they haven’t been liking it for previous years and so it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, what did you different?’ And I’m like, ‘This is a 10-year process coming into play.’ You feel comfortable the more you play and the more games you play.”
Markstrom credits his 60 games and 57 starts last season, which were almost double his previous NHL career highs, for much of his success this season. But his game has also taken another step by eliminating wasted movements and improving his efficiency with Clark, who helped transform Sergei Bobrovsky into a two-time Vezina Trophy winner as the top goalie in the NHL during seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets before coming back to Vancouver this season.
“Because he is physically ahead of the game, it allows his eyes and his mind to be clearer,” Clark said of Markstrom. “You can’t have good visuals when you are constantly behind the play and trying to catch up to the game. What’s really happened is he is a more organized goalie, which allows him to stay ahead of the play.”
The good news for the Canucks is Markstrom feels the best is yet to come.
“Working with [Clark] has helped but at the same time I feel like it’s just getting started,” Markstrom said. “There is stuff I want to have in my game that I am not good enough yet to bring into my game. It’s fun when you get new stuff to work on that you are not good at and you have to really push yourself.”
Especially when you trust all that hard work will also help slow the game down.