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Markstrom on pace to play 60+ games

Did you believe that the Canucks netminder would hit that mark earlier in the season?

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at Vancouver Canucks
That stare though... Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Anders Nilsson was legitimately going to challenge Jacob Markstrom for the number one job?

That’s how many believed the Canucks season was going to play out in October. After Nilsson signed at two-year, $5 million deal on the dawn of free agency, it looked like the Canucks brought on a sneaky-good addition to the team. It looked like Nilsson could go into stealth mode and steal the number one job from Markstrom.

Well, so much for that.

After posting two shutouts in his first two starts as a Canuck, it’s been a downhill slide for Nilsson. This happened for a myriad of reasons, part of which was a lack of playing time, part of which was a four-month defensive meltdown, and part of which was his own doing.

Even though many predicted Nilsson would get more opportunity, it’s clear that Markstrom was Green’s guy from day one. It means that the first-year starter is on pace to play 60+ games. Does that surprise anyone? Markstrom?

After never playing more than 33 games in an NHL season, Markstrom could nearly double that total by the end of the season. He’s at 55 games right now. With only eight games left in the Canucks season, Markstrom should get at least six of those starts.

Most probably would have guessed that Markstrom would play around 50 games, with Nilsson getting more regular action. That didn’t happen, and it should come as a surprise, considering Green’s past usage of goaltenders. Even at the AHL level, Green leaned towards splitting his starters. Markstrom often split time with Richard Backman, even when the Comets went to the Calder Cup finals.

It’s clear that Nilsson wasn’t a favourite, and inconsistent play was definitely a factor. Does that mean that Markstrom’s heavy work load was more of a factor of Nilsson’s inconsistencies rather than his own success?

Markstrom has a quality start percentage of 50% on the season. That’s below the league average of around 53%, but it’s way above Nilsson’s 31%.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Vegas Golden Knights
Mar 20, 2018; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom (25) defends the goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the second period of an NHL hockey game at T-Mobile Arena. The Golden Knights defeated the Canucks 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Most other stats point towards Markstrom being an average NHL goaltender, but definitely one who can hold his own. His save percentage at even-strength .925, which has him 26th among 49 goaltender to play more than 1000 minutes at evens.

All of his low-danger (32nd), high-danger (26th), and mid-danger (25th) save percentages hang around the league average. His biggest sore spot, the low-danger save percentage, has improved. That can be attributed to the softer goals Markstrom was letting in earlier in the season, although he’s shored up that area of late.

By the way, Nilsson ranks dead-last among these 49 goaltenders in low-danger save percentage.

No More Nilsson?

With Markstrom getting the bulk of the starts, Nilsson’s future in Vancouver is now in question. Based on his contract, he’ll be with this team for at least part of the 2018-19 season. Will that hold true?

Many are clamouring for Thatcher Demko to get his NHL shot as early as next season. While I believe Demko needs some NHL time next season, it still might be best to keep him in that third-string/callup role.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Vancouver Canucks
Mar 9, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Minnesota Wild forward Mark Cullen (7) scores against Vancouver Canucks goaltender Anders Nilsson (31) during the second period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin
Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Demko still needs time to dominate in the AHL, and there could be a wealth of talent joining the Comets next year. Let him marinate, as John Garrett would say.

If Demko continues down that trajectory next season, call him up next season for spot duty. If he continues to succeed, that’s the time to trade Nilsson and bring up Demko full-time. For now, there’s no harm in letting Nilsson play himself back into the conversation of being an NHL calibre goaltender. He’ll either step up and play better, or play himself out of a job by the time Demko comes to town.