- First, Jacob Markstrom had taken time off from the Vancouver Canucks this week to return home due to family circumstances. That is the worst reason for a leave of absence, and we wish him and his family the best.
Too Much of a Good Thing
An Uneven Start
Jacob Markstrom is possibly the most underrated player in the league. There are reasons for that, likely the biggest being early expectations. Drafted 31st overall in 2008, he soon got the reputation among insiders as the best goalie outside the NHL. In his second year with Brynas IF, he had a minuscule 2.01 GAA while playing in 43 of 55 games. He was the SHL Goaltender of the Year, and capped his season with two 2010 IIHF bronze medals (Worlds, Juniors).
His transition to North America didn’t start well, but opportunities were also limited. In his first year in Rochester, he managed just a .907 save percentage in 37 games. Acceptable, but not what was expected from a player with his reputation. Fortunately, Rochester’s parent club the Florida Panthers could let him develop behind veterans Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen.
He found his ground shortly thereafter, improving enough to be called up full-time in 2012-13. He took over when Jose Theodore was injured in that shortened season but didn’t produce impressive stats. The Panthers had a very different Jacob Markstrom problem. The next year he backed up Tim Thomas for a dozen games with very mediocre results. Eventually, he was part of the trade that brought Roberto Luongo back to Florida.
Markstrom’s move to the Vancouver Canucks was as an unproven NHL player, but what Vancouver could get given Luongo’s contract. That opinion wasn’t improved in the next two years, playing only seven NHL games with a GAA over 3.00. His numbers with the Utica Comets were excellent though, which earned him a two-year, one-way deal in 2015. He spent the next two years backing up Ryan Miller, building a solid body of work until finally taking over as the starter in 2017-18.
The move to Number One wasn’t without some controversy, as he had never started even 40 games in a year at either the NHL or AHL level. There was some concern that the three-year deal he signed could age badly if he failed. Those fears have been dispelled with two solid years, Markstrom playing 60 games in each. In fact, the opposite has happened.
Backup to Starter to…?
Thatcher Demko is solidifying his position as a backup for Markstrom, despite an injury-riddled 2018-19. During Markstrom’s two-game absence, Demko had two excellent starts against the Detroit Red Wings and St. Louis Blues. He has been the presumptive Goalie of the FUTURE ™ since he was drafted 36th overall in 2014. Though still a bit raw at the NHL level as yet, the potential is clearly visible. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes the starter – possibly as soon as 2020-21. The Jacob Markstrom problem isn’t just his play, but Demko’s.
Markstrom himself hasn’t missed a beat this season, playing four very good games to start the year. He is playing the mentor to Demko, a situation that works for both players and delights the Canucks. He has put together evidence of his durability and consistency just in time for contract negotiations.
Did we mention that the 29-year old is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year?
Jacob Markstrom has clearly earned an extension to his current deal. He has proven that he is a reliable NHL starter. Goalies, unlike skaters, tend to peak when they are in their late 20s or early 30s. It’s entirely possible his best years will happen between now and 2025.
He is also one of the lowest-paid starters in the league, at just $3.667 million.
A quick look at comparable goaltenders shows him deserving a raise to at least $5 million. It’s hardly an amount a team needing a starter would balk at, especially if he were a free agent. But his age is important: this could be Markstrom’s last chance to get a high-paying, long-term deal. The Canucks would love to keep him, but ideally they won’t need a starter in two years because of Demko. No team wants to have two goaltenders at starter’s salaries.
So the Jacob Markstrom problem is in two parts: what he’s earned and what his team wants to pay.
The Canucks are already in a cap crunch this year, with many of the larger contracts not coming off the books for another two or three years. The team is going to have to do some rapid juggling even when Antoine Roussel eventually comes off LTIR. Next season is a year too soon to give Demko the reins without an established veteran backing him up. But a backup can’t get paid $5 million, never mind the possible development of first-year pro Michael DiPietro. In the team’s ideal world, DiPietro will be Demko’s backup in three years or so. No offence to Zane McIntyre.
For Markstrom’s part, if he keeps his numbers up this year then he’ll want to be paid for it. If he can get a long-term deal elsewhere – longer than the Canucks will offer, and likely for more money – he absolutely should go for it. He may not wish to, having gone through some very lean years with Vancouver.
Is there any solution to the Jacob Markstrom problem? It’s difficult to see one without both the player and team making large concessions.
The Canucks are somewhat hamstrung financially, between cumbersome deals, the Ryan Spooner buyout, and Luongo’s recapture penalty. Even without making a pitch for extending Markstrom, deals are going to have to be made. When Demko is ready to be the starter, they’ll still need a veteran backup. The team isn’t good enough yet to take the playoffs for granted, and can’t afford to lose any points.
Will Markstrom, on the other hand, take a short-term deal? The Canucks have finally turned a corner and are improving for the first time in his tenure. Any team looking for a starting goaltender isn’t likely to be in a better position to win. His career has gone from being waiver wire bait to established starter in Vancouver. That history might be enough to keep him here a few years yet.