The first time I saw Jacob Markstrom play, he looked like he was a long, long way from ever being an NHL goaltender. The Florida Panthers' prospect goaltender was playing for the American Hockey League's Rochester Americans in one of his first games in the United States. The Amerks lost the game on several goals on shots that you wouldn't have even said were scoring chances. Late in the game, the opposing team flipped the puck to Markstrom from the blue line. He caught it, set it down, and scooped it right back to their charging forward, who tapped it in.
Of course, he was only 19 at the time. He had been in America for only a couple months and was playing in what's arguably the world's second-best league. Still, it looked like Panthers wouldn't be seeing their phenom goalie until 2020.
Two months later, my opinion of the netminder changed. In that time, his stickhandling had improved significantly, as had his positioning and confidence. It reminded me of something current Rochester coach Ron Rolston said about another top prospect, "The good ones adjust fast." Markstrom sure did.
Late in the 2010-11 season, the Panthers' goalie made an inauspicious NHL debut, allowing two goals in 12 shots. In 2011-12, however, he made seven starts in the NHL and finished the year with a .923 save percentage. The six-foot-six netminder also dominated in 27 AHL starts, going 17-12-1 with a .927 save percentage.
Even with Markstrom playing up to his potential, the Panthers kept two NHL goalies on their roster. The prospect's knee has been a recurring problem and they weren't ready to take the risk of being left with only one average netminder.
So far this year, his knee has been 100% and Markstrom's play has stood high above most AHL goalies. This week, the Swedish netminder was named AHL Player of the Week after winning four games with a .949 save percentage.
On November 28, the Panthers' prospectnow with their new affiliate, the San Antonio Rampagedominated his "former team" at Blue Cross Arena in a 3-1 win. Saying he was miles ahead of where he was in 2010 would be a ridiculous understatement. That night, the Amerks' one-time passes were too slow for his quick pads. Their slap shots weren't hard enough to beat his glove. And the stick? It still isn't Marty Brodeur and never will be, but his stick work has gone from ugly to average.
Every NHL goalie needs the physical tools and technical skills to play in the league, but one thing scouts look for is a goaltender's competitiveness. The word around the rink was that Markstrom is proving himself this year in the AHL. He's currently 8-6-1 with a .916 save percentage.
After his impressive performance in late November, I asked Markstrom about his knee and his future.
HP: What's grown in your game over the last couple years?
Markstrom: A lot of stuff has happened. I've had some problems with my knee. Here in Rochester, I missed nearly half the season and that was my first year too, so it took me awhile to get into it. That summer was all rehab and then last year I started feeling really, really good like I know I could play. This year, I was really excited to have a full summer with my strength coach back home so I'm just working on all my stuff and getting stronger and in better shape. That's how I feel I am right now.
HP: How about your situation. You are behind a couple goalies on the depth chart, but the NHL's not playing so you are the only guy getting to actually play. What are you trying to focus on to get better and prove to the Panthers you can be the guy?
Markstrom: I know what you are saying, but hopefully they end the lockout soon. Nobody wants that as a fan and a player. But, you know, right now this is the top league in the USA and Canada, so this is a lot of skilled players, many who came down from all the different teams. The league got a lot better this year, so it's a big challenge for a goalie. I really try to focus on every day. I want to be good at practice and be professional and win games.
HP: Does not having the NHL to weigh on your mind reduce the amount of pressure you put on yourself?
Markstrom: Absolutely not. Since there are a lot of guys who should be here that are in the ECHL who could be here, if you play bad, we have Brian Foster who is a great goalie. For me, 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. So you have to be on your toes because there are always guys chasing you.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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