VANCOUVER – One of Mike Gillis’s final acts as Canucks general manager was to end the Roberto Luongo saga once and for all in Vancouver by trading the veteran goalie to the Florida Panthers last month.
And while the recently fired Gillis won’t be around to reap any potential benefit from deal, Vancouver got its first real glimpse this week at one of the key pieces that came back the other way.
Jacob Markstrom, acquired along with forward Shawn Matthias as part of the deal that sent Luongo back to his former team, allowed three goals on 27 shots in a solid first start with the Canucks as Vancouver fell 4-2 to the red-hot Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.
The American Hockey League’s goalie of the month for February while he was still a member of the Panthers’ organization, Markstrom watched from the bench for 15 straight games as Vancouver rode fellow Swede Eddie Lack in a failed attempt to make a run at the playoffs.
After the Canucks were eliminated from contention for the first time in six years, head coach John Tortorella indicated that youngsters would play in the team’s final three games and that Markstrom would get his chance to spell Lack, who started 19 in a row following the Olympic break.
“I thought (Markstrom), with the amount of work he’s done and the lack of play … I thought he was really good, as far as the technical part that we’re trying to work on with him,” Tortorella said after Thursday’s game.
That work the Canucks have been doing with Markstrom has included having him play deeper in his crease, a style preached by goalie coach Rollie Melanson.
“A lot of the stuff I’ve been working with Rollie with felt pretty good out there,” said Markstrom, whose only other game with Vancouver was mop-up duty in a 6-1 loss to Dallas. “It’s all repetitions and we’ve been doing it for quite a bit here so it felt pretty natural.
“I was happy that I was playing but too bad we couldn’t win.”
Markstrom might be untested, but he is by no means new to the NHL. The 24-year-old played parts of four seasons with the Panthers, including 23 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign. In 45 career outings, Markstrom has a less-than-inspiring 11-26-5 record to go along with an .897 save percentage and a 3.20 goals-against average.
But it’s his potential and six-foot-six frame that the Canucks were drawn to in the Luongo deal, which happened quickly after Tortorella chose to start Lack in the Heritage Classic.
“I like Jacob Markstrom, I think he’s a really good young talent in goal,” Gillis said after the trade. “When I look at the return, obviously you want to try and get the absolute best and most that you can get, but there are circumstances that do impact and play a role in these things. And we were impacted by things that were somewhat beyond our control.”
At the end of last season, Vancouver had both Luongo and Cory Schneider, who was dealt to the New Jersey Devils in June, on the roster. Now with Lack and Markstrom, what had been a position of strength for the organization is now a major question mark.
Tortorella decided against starting Markstrom with the Canucks still in this year’s playoff chase, describing his talents as “raw.”
“Really the biggest thing Rollie is trying to do is get him deeper (in his crease),” Tortorella said in late March. “He’s a really athletic guy, he’s a big man. He’s trying to get him to play deeper. Again, I don’t spend too much time asking questions, but he’s trying to change his game a little bit.
“He’s a young guy. We are very intrigued about his athletic ability and the size that he is and I think I’ve got one of the best goaltending coaches around in dealing with these guys and teaching them.”
Markstrom, who is expected to play Vancouver’s final two games of the season, said before Thursday’s start he’s fine with the Canucks trying to alter his game if it gets results.
“At the end of the day it’s all about feeling good and stopping the puck,” he said. “You’ve got to go out there with a good feeling and be confident in what you’re going to do and I feel really confident right now.
“I’m just trying to improve my game as much as I can. Obviously it’s a couple different steps with Rollie, what he does and what he wants his goalies to do.”
Meanwhile, Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa confirmed after Thursday’s game that he will represent Canada at the world championship next month in Belarus.
“It’s an honour. I talked to (Canadian general manager) Rob Blake and he asked me if I wanted to play,” said Bieksa. “I haven’t had many opportunities to play for my country before and I don’t plan on missing the playoffs too many more years so I thought I’d take this chance.”