Conventional hockey wisdom has it that goaltenders take much longer to develop than position players. While this is often true, Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markström, 20, often has been a dominating presence in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League) since his arrival at the pro level in February 2008. The lanky 6-foot-3 goaltender, who has also been a standout at the last two World Junior Championships, has been the best goaltender in Sweden this season.
Markström's club, Brynäs IF Gävle, is not one of the top clubs in league. Entering the stretch drive of the regular season, the club sits in sixth place in the 12-team league, eight points behind Färjestads BK Karlstad for the last home-ice spot in the first round of the playoffs and five points in back of fifth-place Skellefteå AIK.
Brynäs' biggest issue is goal scoring beyond the top trio of former Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Eero Somervuori (ninth in the league with 16 goals and 39 points), former Pittsburgh Penguins farmhand Stephen Dixon (20 goals, 33 points) and former Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens winger Andreas Dackell (8 goals, 29 points in a season limited by injury to 38 games). As a club, Brynäs has scored just 117 goals, ranking 7th in the league. It has been Markström's play in goal that has often propelled the club to victory in games where he gets modest offensive support.
Markström, who has started 34 games so far this season, leads Elitserien in all the major goaltending categories. He paces the circuit with a miniscule 1.96 goals against average and .929 save percentage and his four shutouts have been matched only by Skellefteå goalie Andreas Hadelöv. Markström is so gifted that Brynäs was able to allow another well-regarded young goaltender in its system, Joacim Eriksson, go off to play this season for the minor league Leksands IF Stars without blinking an eye.
"It's really easy to explain," Brynäs goaltending coach Pekka Alcén told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. "Jacob stands up longer than the other goalies. If you can take the first shot standing up, it's much better (to be prepared for any rebound opportunities). Jacob's foundation is built on standing up as long as possible to see the puck longer."
Markström has made a concerted effort to stand up longer than he did as a junior goaltender, and the results speak for themselves. He also is blessed with an outstanding glove hand. As the playoffs approach, Alcén expects rival teams to alter their approach somewhat.
"Opponents are going to throw more pucks at the net and crash the net looking for rebounds. That's a tactic [our team] will also use. They think he's more vulnerable if they run into him, but they're wrong. Jacob deals with it, because he's so strong mentally as well as physically," said Alcén.
When asked about his timetable to come play in North America, Markström insists that he refuses to look beyond the current season. Nevertheless, it is likely that he will be ready to start making the transition in the near future. Even the most gifted of European goalies generally need a full season to become fully acclimated to playing the angles on the smaller NHL rink. All young goaltenders, regardless of where they are trained, also have to get prepared for the faster speed of the NHL game as well as the elite quality of the players. Opposing attackers who are role players in the NHL are often stars in the European elite leagues or the AHL.
While it may take Markström a few years to blossom into a bonafide NHL starting goaltender, the potential is clearly there. In fact, scouts from two NHL teams that passed on drafting Markström in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft privately conceded that Florida may have outfoxed their clubs by grabbing the Swedish goaltender with the first pick of the second round. Said one Eastern Conference scout, "We had [Nashville Predators prospect Chet] Pickard as the No. 1 goalie in the draft, and then guys like Markström and [Detroit Red Wings draftee Thomas] McCollum were closer to rest of the pack. It's a crapshoot with goalies, anyhow, and it's still a recent draft. But we did not expect that Markström would develop as quick as he has. So, yes, I think if you look now at the guys from that draft, Markström would be ahead of some of the position players [who were picked ahead of him]."
In past seasons, including his draft year, Markström showed signs of fatigue by the spring time. But as he's gained strength and stamina through hard training, the young goaltender has begun to exhibit the potential of being a goaltender who finds his second wind when crunch time rolls around.
Markström was predictably excluded from Sweden's Olympic roster in favor of New York Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist, the older Jonas Gustavsson of the Toronto Maple Leafs and veteran Elitserien goaltender Stefan Liv. But as he continues to develop he stands a good chance of someday succeeding Lundqvist if the NHL continues to participate in future Olympic tournaments.