Jacob Markstrom (Lindsay Mogle/Utica Comets)
Markstrom has been a perennial prospect the past seven years. Now an NHL job has opened for him in Vancouver, and it looks as though his AHL days are behind him.By John Pitarresi Jacob Markstrom has come a long, long way in his hockey career. But not in the favorable sense you’d expect from that sort of expression. He came to North America from Gavle, Sweden as a 20-year-old and the No. 2 NHL prospect worldwide as judged in THN’s Future Watch 2010. He’s played in the northeast (Rochester, and now Utica), he’s played in the southeast (Florida), he’s played in the southwest (San Antonio) and he’s played in the northwest (Vancouver). Yes, Markstrom has come a long way – geographically speaking. It wasn’t supposed to take this long for Markstrom to make a name for himself.
The 25-year-old stopper has had a spotlight on him since the Florida Panthers selected him 31st overall in 2008. He was ranked No. 3 in Future Watch 2009, then second the next year, then eighth, then eighth again, then down to 30th, then theoretically in the NHL for good in 2013-14, then back in at 56th in this year’s edition. Markstrom became the perennial prospect who wouldn’t go away.But that’s often how it is for goalies. They take longer to develop. For every Carey Price or Roberto Luongo, who make it to the big league out of junior, there are many more like Ben Bishop (seven years after being drafted), Corey Crawford (seven years), Cory Schneider (six years), Henrik Lundqvist (five years), Pekka Rinne (four years) who need time to become regulars. The 2015-16 season will be seven years post draft for Markstrom. He has seemingly made the NHL in Vancouver after the Canucks traded Eddie Lack in the off-season to make room for him behind starter Ryan Miller. Ideally, Markstrom will take over as the starter by the time Miller’s deal expires in 2017. Canucks GM Jim Benning was convinced of Markstrom’s readiness after he led the Utica Comets to the Calder Cup final in the AHL this past season. Despite Markstrom’s best efforts, the Comets fell to the Manchester Monarchs in five games. He had a sensational regular season – 1.88 goals-against average, .934 save percent, five shutouts – and was just as good in the playoffs. “He’s good at what he does,” Utica coach Travis Green said. “What I like about him is his demeanor. He’s learned to not get too high or too low. It comes with believing in himself. If he has a bad game, I’m sure he’s coming back with a good game.” Markstrom grew up in the home city of several Swedish players, including Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom and his Comets backup and boyhood rival, Joacim Eriksson. His mother is a kindergarten teacher, his father is a janitor and soccer coach, and Markstrom was a soccer goalie himself. By his early teens, he gave up the big net for the small one. The scouting report on Markstrom in his draft year read like this: “An interesting raw talent who combines athletic ability with good technique and positioning.” But he needed to get to another level. He worked hard this past season on tracking the puck and closing the open space between the moving disc, the net and the shooter’s eyes. Goalie coaches Rollie Melanson and Dan Cloutier were key to Markstrom’s resurgence. “They’re unbelievable,” Markstrom said. “I try to use my size (6-foot-6), cover as much net as you can. But you open bigger holes when you move. Anticipation and tracking the puck is the huge thing.” Although he’s played on big stages and lived in some big towns, Markstrom has enjoyed his time in the Mohawk Valley. “As a player, what matters is the atmosphere at the rink,” he said. “Utica has been unbelievable. The locker rooms, training rooms, the staff.” And the notoriously wild crowd at 3,835-seat Utica Memorial Auditorium? “The fans have been out of this world,” he said. “When you think it is as loud as it can be, it gets louder. It pushes you to perform well. The fans help you put out that extra 10 percent.” This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the August 17 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.