by Kinsey Janke || for NHL.com
After going to the Florida Panthers in the second round (No. 31) of the 2008 NHL Entry 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 then San Antonio, Markstrom seemed unable to live up to the expectations the hockey world had for him.
And then the trade happened.
Getting moved to Vancouver alongside forward Shawn Matthias and seeing longtime Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo go the other way just before last year’s trade deadline proved to be just the spark the 25-year-old Markstrom needed, and his first full season in the Canucks organization has been nothing short of impressive.
“I felt really ready for this year,” said Markstrom, whose 1.94 goals-against average and .932 save percentage with the Utica Comets both rank him second in the AHL this season. “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 just one goal in his first four games in a Comets sweater, blanking the opposition in three straight outings and eventually posting a shutout streak of 238:08 – just 30 minutes shy of the league’s 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,” said Comets head coach Travis Green. “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 grasp of the top spot in the AHL’s North Division. Markstrom, for the first time in his five-year North American career, has a fellow countryman to share the crease with.
Though 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 Marky 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 another in the Swedish youth ranks before joining forces with Brynas for two seasons together (2007-09).
His rookie AHL campaign in 2013-14 saw Eriksson shoulder most of the work for the Comets, breaking even through 52 games with a 24-24-2 record. He paired that with a 2.61 GAA and a .911 save percentage, and his five shutouts tied for third overall in the league.
Now more familiar with the North American game, Eriksson has posted a 14-7-4 record for Utica (2.60, .908) through 27 games this season.
“I feel like it’s easier now to play than it was last year in the beginning. It’s a little bit different,” he said. “I played a little bit more last year, but I feel like this year is going pretty well. It’s good to be with Marky, 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 itself 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, messing with a goaltender’s already set positioning. And while the ice is getting smaller, the schedule is getting bigger, bumping up from 54 games in the SHL to 76 in the AHL and 82 in the NHL. Neither Eriksson nor Markstrom had played in a back-to-back until their move overseas.
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 spot to fill at the end of the day.
“Everyone wants to play every game, and the guys who play every game want more minutes. It’s no different in goaltending. You want to play your best,” Green said. “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. We try to push each other and help each other out to help the team to win,” Markstrom said. “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.”