After being selected by the Florida Panthers in the second round (No. 31) of the 2008 NHL Draft, Jacob Markstrom's North American adjustment had a microscope on it from the moment he left his native Sweden in 2010.
Spending three and a half years bouncing between the Panthers and their American Hockey League affiliates in Rochester and San Antonio, Markstrom seemed unable to live up to the expectations the hockey world had for him.
And then the trade happened.
Getting sent to the Vancouver Canucks along with forward Shawn Matthias in exchange for goalie Roberto Luongo proved to be the spark the 25-year-old needed, and his first full season in the Canucks organization has been nothing short of impressive.
Jacob Markstrom's 1.94 goals-against average and .932 save percentage with Utica rank second in the AHL so far this season. (Photo: Todd Reicher)
"I felt really ready for this year," said Markstrom, whose 1.94 goals-against average and .932 save percentage with the Utica Comets rank second in the AHL entering the weekend. "Getting traded was a big eye-opener. You have to grab the bull by the horns and really work for it. You're trying to make a career of this. I feel really confident with where my game is right now."
Markstrom began the season allowing one goal in his first four games, blanking the opposition in three straight games and posting a shutout streak of 238:08, 30 minutes shy of the AHL all-time record.
"I think he's really matured. It would have been easy for him to wonder why or be upset when he came down," Comets coach Travis Green said. "I like the way his attitude has been since Day One. It's impressive. He's a guy you can talk to openly and honestly and know that he's going to take it the right way."
The Comets are in the midst of a 180-degree turnaround from their inaugural season, and the goaltending they have received has played a large part in their current spot atop the AHL North Division. And for the first time in his five-season North American career, Markstrom has a countryman to share the crease with.
Joacim Eriksson, in his second season with the Comets, is more than just another Swede in net.
"We've known each other since we were kids so it's perfect to have a guy like [Markstrom] here," Eriksson said. "We talk a lot and we try to solve a lot of situations and try to make each other better. He's a great guy and a great goalie."
Eriksson, 24, grew up just outside of Markstrom's hometown of Gavle, and the two competed against one each other in the Swedish youth ranks before playing together with Brynas for two seasons (2007-09).
As a rookie in 2013-14, Eriksson shouldered most of the work for the Comets, going 24-24-2 record with a 2.61 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 52 games; his five shutouts tied for third in the league.
Now more familiar with the North American game, Eriksson is 14-7-4 with a 2.60 GAA and .908 save percentage in 27 games this season.
Joacim Eriksson is 14-7-4 with a 2.60 GAA and .908 save percentage in 27 games this season. (Photo: Steven Christy)
"I feel like it's easier now to play than it was last year in the beginning," Eriksson said. "It's a little bit different. I played a little bit more last year but I feel like this year is going pretty well. It's good to be with [Markstrom], to have a Swedish goalie here too."
Making the transition from the European leagues to the AHL and eventually NHL comes with more than a language barrier or culture shock, as the game takes on a slightly different form when moving from country to country.
The ice shrinks in North America which in turn alters all the angles, forcing a goaltender to change his positioning. And while the ice gets smaller, the schedule is gets bigger, going from 54 games in the Swedish Hockey League to 76 in the AHL and 82 in the NHL. Neither Eriksson nor Markstrom had played in a back-to-back until their moves to North America.
A goalie tandem is a unique aspect of the sport. Like a forward or a defenseman, a roster spot is being fought for. But unlike a skater there is only one net to fill at the end of the day.
"Everyone wants to play every game, and the guys who play every game want more minutes," Green said. "It's no different in goaltending. You want to play your best. You both want to push each other and you both want to play well. But you both also need to be happy for each other and root each other on."
That cheerleader-type mentality is prevalent between the two Swedes, drawing back on years of playing against each other, for each other and with each other.
"It makes every day a competitive day," Markstrom said. "We try to push each other and help each other out to help the team to win. It's a real comfort to have a Swede and also a friend you can talk to off the ice. Whether that's hockey stuff, technique stuff, you can always talk and bounce ideas. At the end of the day it's only one goalie who can play and that's the coach's decision."
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