Ed Willes: Canucks’ crease problem becoming increasingly complex

 

 
 
 
 
Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Anders Nilsson during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena in October.
 

Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Anders Nilsson during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena in October.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, The Province

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In his second year of professional hockey in the Swedish league, Jacob Markstrom found himself in an awkward spot at Brynas with his boyhood pal Anders Lindback.

The two had gone to kindergarten together in Gavle, grown up together, played minor hockey together, done, in short, all the things kids do together. But now, with their careers starting and the NHL calling, they had to split the net in the Swedish elite league.

So they played a little game.

“We decided the coach was the (villain, although he used the diminutive of the name Richard to describe the coach’s role in this drama),” said the Vancouver Canucks’ goalie. “He was the one who made the decisions. It was out of our hands.”

Markstrom was then asked if Canucks head coach Travis Green is currently playing the role of the, er, “Richard,” in his job share with Anders Nilsson.

“I’m not saying that,” Markstrom said, laughing.

“But he’s the one making the decision. (Nilsson) wants to be in the net. Obviously, I want to be in net. But the coach decides who plays. We know that. We’re grownups here.”

No argument there. As to the question over who Green starts, well, that’s become an ongoing argument this hockey season.

The Canucks, who are no strangers to goalie controversies, have the makings of another one percolating with Markstrom and Nilsson. Green’s position has been he has two good goalies at his disposal, and the starting assignment is made after considering a myriad of factors and consulting goalie coach Dan Cloutier. That’s an accurate, if not vague, representation of Green’s process, but as this season unfolds, another development has emerged which is kind of important.

Through 19 games, Markstrom has been given the net 14 times by Green. Before Saturday night’s 4-3 overtime loss to St. Louis, he’d gone 5-7-2 with a .910 save percentage and a 2.63 GAA.

Nilsson, who started against the Blues, has made five starts, going 4-1 with a .942 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA.

Granted, there’s a difference in the sample size and, on a list of Canucks’ concerns, Markstrom’s play doesn’t make the top 10. But it’s hard to ignore Nilsson’s numbers, just as it’s hard to ignore Markstrom’s unfortunate tendency to give up bad goals.

Saturday night, Nilsson didn’t exactly board up the net against the West-leading Blues, but he did enough to drag the game into overtime before Brayden Schenn won it. The Canucks’ keeper stopped 27 of 31, including a Scott Upshall breakaway and a tricky deflection in the last two minutes to preserve the point.

Now it’s doubtful that performance will alter either goalie’s workload in the foreseeable future. In what seems to be an organizational decision, Markstrom has been given the No. 1 role but nobody has to explain to him that’s not a lifetime appointment. This Canucks’ team requires superior goaltending if it’s to remain competitive.

It just remains to be seen if either goalie can provide that level of ‘keeping.

“It’s in the back of your head,” Markstrom said. “Someone wants to take your job, but you need that competition.

“Me and Anders work really together. We’re good friends off the ice. On the ice we compete. We both want to be the goalie and if you’re not the goalie, you push other guy. We both know that’s how this works.”

And so do Canucks’ supporters.

The similarities between the two men are striking. Both stand 6-foot-6, which makes them charter members of the giant Swedish goalie club, a fraternity which includes Lindback, who was just recalled by Nashville; Robin Lehner, who Nilsson backed up in Buffalo last season, and the eternal Eddie Lack.

Both are 27. Markstrom’s career save percentage is .908. Nilsson’s is .910. Even their salaries are comparable. Markstrom is in the first year of a three-year extension which averages out to $3.67 million per. Nilsson is in the first year of a two-year free agent deal which averages $2.5 million per.

They were also drafted one year apart — Markstrom the 31st pick to Florida in the 2008 draft, Nilsson, the 62nd pick to the Islanders in 2009. The difference there is Markstrom made it to the NHL quicker and has played more games (109 in his NHL career). Nilsson, for his part, drifted all over the hockey world with stints in the KHL and Edmonton and St. Louis before his breakout season with the Sabres (10-10-4, .923, 2.67) in 2016-17.

That year, coupled with his fast start with the Canucks, suggests Nilsson might be the prototypical late bloomer; that at 27 he’s ready to establish himself as an elite NHL goalie.

He was asked about that.

“I feel so,” Nilsson said. “I feel confident. I do.”

But he’ll need more playing time to prove it.

“I try not to overthink it,” Nilsson continued. “I try to treat each practice like it’s a game. That way I know I’m prepared when my chance comes. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s how it works.”

“Everything else is out of my control. I can only go out and do my job.”

And hope the Richard making the decision takes note.

ewilles@postmedia.com

twitter.com/willesonsports

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JPat and Botch are back with the Pat-cast, powered by Eagle Ridge GM, to cover the Canucks’ no show vs. Vegas, to ponder why Virtanen isn’t playing, where the offence is supposed to come from, the goaltending situation and more …

 
 
 
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Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Anders Nilsson during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena in October.
 

Jacob Markstrom of the Vancouver Canucks talks to teammate Anders Nilsson during their NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Rogers Arena in October.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, The Province

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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