The Vancouver Canucks entered the 2017-18 season with more questions than maybe any other team in the NHL. Can the twins, Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin, still put up top-line production? Is rookie head coach Travis Green the real deal? Can youngsters Brock Boeser and Jake Virtanen make meaningful contributions? Perhaps the biggest question though… is Jacob Markstrom a true #1 goalie? Follow up question… who the Hell is Anders Nilsson?
Through 13 games this season, more than half of what he managed in 2016-17, Markstrom has proven himself to be up to the task in the early going. His 2.36 GAA and .917 Sv% puts him in the NHL’s top 10 amongst starting goaltenders, ranking 7th in GAA and 12th in Sv%. While he’s still seeking his elusive first NHL shutout, it should come this season if he continues his strong play… unless of course you think I just jinxed any chance he had. If so, I take full blame.
As for Nilsson, the 6’5”, 230 lbs giant has been nothing short of remarkable in his short time with the Canucks. With two shutouts and a jaw dropping 1.89 GAA and .943 Sv% in just four games, there’s literally nothing to criticize in the big Swede’s game. Nilsson has already earned himself a place in team history by posting a shutout in his Canucks debut, when he blanked the Ottawa Senators on October 17th. He’s just the third goaltender in team history to earn a “no-no” in his debut along with Mike Fountain and Johan Hedberg.
A Vancouver Special: The Goalie Tandem
The season is young and there’s still plenty of time for the shoe to drop for both Markstrom and Nilsson, but so far even the most pessimistic of Canucks fans has to admit that the team has a solid 1A/1B tandem. When veteran Ryan Miller departed this past offseason for a two-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks, the Canucks fanbase was split on whether or not it was for the best. Miller, while clearly not part of the future given his advanced age, provided the team with stellar goaltending the past three seasons. Should the team have turned to Markstrom or *gasp* Eddie Lack as its full-time starter three seasons ago, there’s no telling where they’d be in the rebuild.
As it is, Markstrom has been afforded the opportunity to hone his game over the course of 60+ games with Miller on the bench as his backup. The truth is, while the Canucks maintained all along that Miller/Markstrom comprised a 1A/1B split the past two seasons, we all know that Miller was the true #1. Finally now though, Markstrom’s time has come.
A Decade Long Breakout
And if this is indeed the 27-year-old’s breakout campaign, it’s been a long-time coming. Selected in the 2nd round (31st overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Florida Panthers, Markstrom was heralded as the “best goalie not in the NHL” for years before making his debut with the Panthers. After a few middling seasons split between the AHL and the NHL, it took a trade to the Canucks in 2014 to jump start his career. Since then, Canucks management has been patient with Markstrom, grooming him into the capable netminder that he appears to be now.
Remember though, it’s not as if Markstrom was handled with kid gloves the entire time. He has fought through some truly terrible performances, an AHL demotion, a stint on waivers and a freak knee injury. He’s come through it all though and he’s looking more and more like the goaltender the team hoped they were acquiring when he was traded for Roberto Luongo in the March 4th, 2014 deal that shocked the entire hockey world.
The Kazan Kid
And if that’s not enough, Nilsson’s path to the crease in Vancouver has even more twists and turns. He’s a rare 27-year-old journeyman, playing on his 5th NHL team in just five seasons. The former New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres netminder has appeared in 82 NHL games since being selected by the Isles in the 3rd round (62nd overall) in 2009.
During his first stint in the NHL, Nilsson split three seasons between the Islanders and their AHL affiliate before bolting for an offer from Kazan Ak-Bars in the KHL. It was there where the big man found consistency. He posted a remarkable 1.71 GAA and .936 Sv% and took his team all the way to the Gagarin Cup Final before losing to SKA Saint Petersburg. With renewed interest from NHL clubs, Nilsson returned to North America, signing with the Edmonton Oilers in 2015. Since then, he’s bounced around a bit, but actually managed to put together some stellar starts last season for the woeful Buffalo Sabres. In 26 games, Nilsson posted a 2.67 GAA and .923 Sv& backing up Robin Lehner in Buffalo.
With a new regime taking over however, Nilsson was left unsigned by the Sabres before inking a two-year, $5 million deal with the Canucks on the opening day of free-agency. While it’s early yet, the Canucks’ gamble on Nilsson is looking like an awfully shrewd one. No one expects him to keep up his season trajectory and post 20 shutouts this campaign, but if he can provide the Canucks with league-average goaltending in at least 20 starts, he’ll have afforded Markstrom even more time to settle into the starter’s role.
Fans and analysts have speculated that Nilsson will start anywhere from 25-40 games this season, with Markstrom getting the lion’s share of the Canucks crease. If Nilsson nears or exceeds the top end of these predictions, he’ll ensure that the Canucks have a 1A/1B split yet again. Except this time around, the script has been flipped. The B is now an A and well on his way to being the uncontested #1.
Goodbye Miller Time, hello Marky Time.