Six-foot-six Swede Jacob Markstrom is still learning to balance his big size with his incredible athleticism. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Six-foot-six Swede Jacob Markstrom is still learning to balance his big size with his incredible athleticism. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

The Florida Panthers re-signed Jacob Markstrom earlier this week, but the new deal was far from a guarantee the super-sized Swedish stopper would begin this season where he finished the last, in the NHL as their default No.1 goaltender.

It is perhaps telling that the promising Markstrom was forced to accept a two-way contract with an American Hockey League clause for a lower salary in the first year of his new deal, while in the second year he gets the one-way NHL deal all goalies desire.

Coming off a season in which Markstrom quadrupled his NHL experience by playing almost half the Panthers games – 23 in total – after a serious groin injury to veteran Jose Theodore, Florida still wasn’t willing to hand over a guaranteed NHL contract.

According to a story in the Florida Sun-Sentinel, Markstrom’s desire for a one-way deal right away – and the Panthers refusal to grant it – created the delay in re-signing the restricted free agent.

While it may be easy to look at a goalie regarded for years as the “best outside the NHL” by many and wonder why a goalie drafted 31st in 2008 still needs a minor-league clause after three years playing the North American pro game, it seems it is also too easy to forget Markstrom is still just 23 years old, and the adjustment from playing in his native Sweden has been significant.

The good news is Markstrom is making that adjustment. Praised for his patience and waiting out shooters before committing to his save selection during a junior career that saw him playing in Sweden’s top pro league as a teen, he was arguably too patient his first year in the American Hockey League, with too many pucks going through his big frame before he could close all the holes.

Markstrom is learning there are times he just needs to close all the holes and let his big body do the work. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Markstrom is learning there are times he just needs to close all the holes and let his big body do the work. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Watching him three years later, Markstrom had clearly made an adjustment, and found a better balance between simply closing those holes and letting his size work for him in more situations, but without losing too much of that reactive ability that defined his success in those early years. As most goalies can tell you, it’s not an easy balance to strike, and likely one that will require more time yet to perfect at the NHL level. InGoal had a chance to talk to Markstrom about that evolution last season.

“Obviously when I played in Sweden I played a little more aggressive, and it was a bigger rink so I could get away with it,” Markstrom said. “Right now I am just trying to learn. You don’t want over-movement, because when you have over-movement there are going to be holes in your body and five-hole and under your arms.”

Those holes are exacerbated when your body is as big – and limbs as long – as Markstrom.

“Exactly,” he continued. “So I am trying to have less movement, but at the same time I have a desperation in my game and I need that. So I am just trying to mix that. I don’t really think I have like huge rules, but I just have a couple within the crease and working within the posts and what to do, but at the end of the day it’s stop the puck and try to have fun.”

Those positioning “rules” may not be set in stone, but they were clearly more conservative than InGoal’s first viewing during that rookie season in the AHL. Markstrom still uses VH in his game when the attack comes from below the bottom of the faceoff circle – and better than most given his shoulders easily reach right up under the cross bar, and his lateral push is a nice balance between explosive and controlled – but has also added some reverse-VH, or paddle down, when the play is coming more from behind the net.

~ For a great example of Markstrom using the VH effectively, check out this sequence from InGoal photographer Clint Trahan:
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“We are talking about it,” he said. “I am not doing it every time either but like that point below the circle on the side, if he is below that you can go VH because you will cover the whole net if you do it properly, and if he’s above that you should use butterfly. I decide obviously what I think feels right and will work out the best and that’s what I am going to do.”

It’s a decision that gets easier with experience, something he still needs more of in the NHL.

“Obviously we work at it every day and in practice and with Florida’s goalie coach [Robb Tallas] when I was up last year I was watching [Scott] Clemmensen and [Jose] Theodore,” Markstrom said. “They are not exactly my style of goaltending, but they are great guys and off the ice you really see how professional they are and it’s good to see that too.”

Markstrom does not want to become a puck-blocking robot, however, and wants to still be able to react in the right situations. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Markstrom does not want to become a puck-blocking robot, however, and wants to still be able to react in the right situations. (InGoal photo by Scott Slingsby)

Mostly, though, he is still trying to strike that balance between technique and instinct. The fact Markstrom is capable of moving so explosively with such a massive frame can actually complicate that process. He’s big enough to block more then he does, but also has so much natural athleticism that you’d hate to see stripped from his game by becoming overly technical.

Markstrom was born in Gavle, and has worked with famed Swedish goalie coach Pekka Alcen, whose other pupils include Canucks’ prospect Eddie Lack and Tampa Bay’s Anders Lindback, since he was “five or six years old” right through his career with his hometown team, Brynas. After he was drafted, Tallas flew to Sweden to meet with Alcen, helping bridge a transition that continues today.

“He don’t want me to be a robot, he don’t want me to move like that,” Markstrom said of Tallas. “You don’t want to get too aggressive and you don’t want to lose it all. He wants me to still have my game but it’s all comfort too. I feel comfortable with him and we talk and he sees stuff that I don’t see and we watch video together and talk about it. When you watch the game by yourself you think, ‘that was good,’ but with him you see ‘what if you did it like this?’ So it’s another set of eyes. I really get along with him.”

It’s a relationship – and a style – that will continue to develop, whether in the AHL or NHL next season.

Given the talent involved and the steps already taken, the smart money is on the NHL.

~ For more examples of Markstrom’s evolution in action, check out this gallery featuring photos from InGoal’s Scott Slingsby during an NHL game against the Bruins, and from InGoal’s Clint Trahan during a game between Markstrom’s San Antonio Rampage and the Abbotsford Heat last season:

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