Being a first-round draft pick is nice, but Sweden's Jacob Markstrom
couldn't care less that he missed that milestone by just one pick in the 2008 Entry Draft.
"It wasn't that important to go in the first round," Markstrom said. "Before the season, my goal was to be drafted by a NHL team, and I met that goal. Of course, you want to go as high as possible, but in the end it really doesn't matter. You just want to have the chance."
Markstrom was selected at No. 31 by Florida, a team that is desperate to cultivate a home-grown goalie to lead the franchise to the next level. Consider this: Since joining the League in 1993, the Panthers have seen one goalie that they drafted and developed make it to the NHL with Florida. That goalie was Kevin Weekes
, who played only 11 games with the Panthers during the 1997-98 season before being traded as part of the 1999 trade that brought Pavel Bure
to Florida from Vancouver.
The other 18 goalies to dress for Florida in its history have all been imports.
Could Markstrom be the goalie that finally puts an end to the homegrown goaltending drought in Southern Florida that is approaching two decades? That remains to be seen, but Markstrom's early body of work suggests it is a distinct possibility.
He is the highest-drafted of the 17 goalies selected in team history, beating out Tyler Plant (No. 32, 2005) by one spot. And he might just be the most battle-tested.
Markstrom played for Brynas IF last season in the Elitserien, Sweden's top professional league. Most observers believe that the SEL is just one step below the NHL and on par with the American Hockey League, which serves as the primary North American player conduit for the NHL.
Markstrom was not a young backup carried merely for a taste of the big-time. He started several games for Brynas and finished the season as their No. 1. His heroics in the postseason saved the club from being relegated to a lower division. In nine postseason starts against the top teams from HockeyAllsvenskan, hungry for promotion to the Elitserien, Markstrom allowed just 15 goals, posting a sparkling 1.78 goals-against average.
Before joining the senior club with Brynas this season, Markstrom owned the junior league. In 22 appearances, he posted a stellar 2.00 GAA. But make no mistake; it was his cool-under-pressure performance with the senior club that carried weight with the scouts.
"At the U-17 in Ann Arbor I played a few games on the small ice. It's not so different. It's a lot of shots though and I think that is more fun for me. I like that. With the angles and stuff, you just have to be more focused." Jacob Markstrom
"I learned a lot by just looking at the other guys and learning what it means to lead a professional life," Markstrom said of life in the SEL. "I learned how to change my approach and all that. I really enjoyed that process and had as much fun as possible."
At 18, Markstrom is still supposed to have fun. He plans to continue enjoying life this season, even though he should be the undisputed No. 1 with Brynas. There is no more experienced goalie to beat out to make things harder or more complicated. Anders Lindback
, selected by Nashville (No. 207) in the 2008 Entry Draft, is the other goalie with Brynas. Technically, Lindback is two years older than Markstrom, but he has even less Elitserien experience than Markstrom.
But even the idea of competing against Lindback is a hoot for Markstrom, who has known and competed against Lindback for more than a decade now.
"It's funny because we have known each other since we were kids," Markstrom said. "We played together for a small club and then we moved to Brynas when we were teens."
While Markstrom may yet be the goaltending savior that Florida craves, he will not arrive any time soon. He is not going to Florida's training camp later this month, having already started the preseason with Brynas. He also has one more year left on the two-year deal he signed with the Swedish club this past spring, just before being drafted by the Panthers.
The wait, however, may not be too long for Markstrom, who yearns to play in the NHL.
"I got two years back in Sweden on my contract, this season and the next one, and then we will see what happens," he said.
Florida management got a little bit of a sneak preview of what to expect when Markstrom arrived with a Swedish U-20 team to play in a summer tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., which also featured two Team USA entries and a U-20 team from Finland.
Markstrom played in two of Sweden's four games against the Americans, going 1-1. He stopped 62 of the 69 shots he faced and looked good against the top U-20 talent from the United States.
At the time, Markstrom had played virtually no hockey and was asked to play against elite competition in a rink that was much smaller than the larger European surfaces to which he has grown accustomed. In fact, he had only played on a NHL-sized rink one previous time before his Lake Placid experience. That was during an U-17 Four Nations event a few years ago in Michigan.
"At the U-17 in Ann Arbor I played a few games on the small ice," he said. "It's not so different. It's a lot of shots though and I think that is more fun for me. I like that. With the angles and stuff, you just have to be more focused."
Clearly, focus is not a problem for Markstrom.