Will Vancouver offer new life for Markstrom?

What is the nicest way to say a player has been really bad? He has struggled? Had a tough go? Been on a rough ride? Well, whichever way you elect to say it, it is the truth about Jacob Markstrom’s NHL time with the Florida Panthers.

Once thought of as a prospect phenom, four years into his pro career the Swedish netminder has fallen well short of expectations. He has a .898 career save percentage in 43 games, which is far below the NHL .914 average.

His failure to emerge as the goalie of the future in Florida opened up the door for the Panthers to trade him to Vancouver in exchange for Roberto Loungo. It seems Eddie Lack is the Canucks’ No. 1 man now, but is it too soon to declare Markstrom a failure? Will he gain new life in Vancouver? Based on goalies of the past and his minor league numbers, there may still be a chance for the 24-year-old.

In 2012, Hockey Prospectus interviewed Markstrom. It was during the lockout and he was just beginning to shake off a poor start to the season. His spirits were high with expectations he would become the top goalie in Florida as soon as NHL play resumed. The former second-round pick sounded motivated to out-work the competition, saying: “I can’t relax. I want to play. I don’t want to be a backup goalie. I want to be a starter whether I’m in the NHL or I’m here (in San Antonio). So you have to be on your toes because there are always guys chasing you.”

When the season finally began, he did receive a chance to be the Panthers’ goalie. He managed only a .901 save percentage in 23 games and won only eight. This season things went even worse – Markstrom posted a .874 save percentage in 12 games and won one game. His play may have cost coach Kevin Dineen his job. It is not hard to see why he was expendable at the deadline.

However, the young netminder’s AHL statistics might give you pause. Since the 2011-12 season, he has posted a .922 save percentage. Go back a few years and compare that to some other goalie prospects who have emerged as NHL starters. In 2009-10, Braden Holtby had a .917 save percentage, Cory Schneider .919, Jhonas Enroth .919 and Devan Dubnyk .915. Jonathan Bernier ran away with the league that season at .936. The following year, Vezina Trophy race leader Ben Bishop posted a .914 in the AHL, while current Vancouver starter Eddie Lack had .926 and Edmonton goalie Ben Scrivens .924.

These goalies were considered raw at the time – much like Markstrom – and have turned into NHL goalies.

Does that mean he can make that .922 save percentage translate into quality NHL numbers as Holby, Schneider, Bishop and Bernier have? That is a difficult question. There have been just as many goalies who knock them dead in the “A” but can not stop a puck in the NHL. Veteran Curtis Stanford had an amazing .930 for the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2010-11, but only scored a .911 in extended NHL work for Columbus the next season. Nathan Lawson had an unbelievable .938 with Binghamton last year, yet in his NHL time with the Islanders managed a .893 save percentage.

Goalies are unpredictable, but the AHL numbers at least put Markstrom in the “don’t give up yet” category.

There is another factor – one that is highly debated amongst hockey stat folks: How the Panthers’ awful defense affects its goalie’s numbers. Some say no matter how bad a team is, the save percentage statistic should be mostly unaffected by poor defense – that a team will simply give up more shots and therefore more goals. It seems to go against intuition. It would seem that poorer defensive teams will make more mistakes, give up more odd-man rushes and more shots close to the net. Right? If that were true, why do great defensive teams like St. Louis have goaltenders with mediocre save percentages? At best, there is no clear answer.

For example, when Ryan Miller was traded off the league’s worst Buffalo Sabres, his save percentage was a solid .923. His backup Jhonas Enroth (albeit in a small sample) had a .906 save percentage.

You can spin this whichever way works for your narrative. 1) See how much better Miller is? That means he is overcoming the team and having an amazing year. 2) See how Enroth’s numbers are worse than his career .912 save percentage? It must be because of how bad the team is.

It might be a case-to-case basis. In the case of the Panthers and Markstrom, we know that no other goalie in the last two years has had any better luck than he did. Of course, we are not exactly talking about Dominik Hasek in his prime in Scott Clemmensen, Tim Thomas and Jose Theodore. Nonetheless, Markstrom has a .904 5-on-5 save percentage over the past two seasons, whereas the other three have a .907 EV save percentage.

Markstrom Shots Saves  EV save %
2012-13 559 510 0.912
2013-14 226 200 0.885
785 710 0.904
Tim Thomas 978 894 0.914
Scott Clemmensen (12-13) 335 309 0.922
Scott Clemmensen (13-14) 346 304 0.879
Jose Theodore 324 292 0.901
1983 1799 0.907

In Vancouver, the goalie factory seems to spin out good netminder after good netminder. Rookie Eddie Lack has a .932 even-strength save percentage this season. This on the heels of Corey Schneider (.931 EV save percentage last year) rising up the ranks to challenge Roberto Luongo, who had a .921 EV save percentage this season.

They all might be good goalies or they all might be assisted by strong defensive play or something systematic. Again, there is not an exact answer – and the New Jersey Devils and Marty Brodeur show us that puck possession does not always help save percentage – but the Canucks are ninth in the NHL in Fenwick Close percentage and only five of the bottom 15 teams in save percentage had a plus-50 percent Fenwick Close percentage.

All we have is hints that the Canucks’ defense, possession and system might help Markstrom. We also have his age, pedigree and AHL stats. Is it enough to make a bold prediction that he becomes a top flight goalie in Vancouver? Not exactly. But the hints are enough to feel positive that it is too soon to call the 24-year-old a bust.

Matthew Coller is Managing Editor of Hockey Prospectus. He is the long-time host of Hockey Prospectus Radio, producer of the Howard Simon Show on Buffalo’s WGR550 and their Rochester Amerks reporter, and a multi-sport play-by-play announcer.

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Follow Matthew on Twitter at @matthewWGR.

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