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Jacob Markstrom's Huge Contract a Make-or-Break Move for This Era of the Flames

The Flames are all-in on a push to become more than middling contenders, and they've found their new starting goaltender on a long-term deal. He was great this past season but merely good before then. Which version of Markstrom is the real one?

We knew the Calgary Flames were going to walk away with a big-ticket starting goaltender this off-season. They needed to break through from middling contender to true contender and, while they got an admirable lift from veteran Cam Talbot this past season, they wanted a bellcow starter to rely on for a full season. It was no surprise to see the Flames pursue and sign UFA Jacob Markstrom, then, after he and the Vancouver Canucks couldn’t reach a deal and the Canucks snapped up UFA Braden Holtby Friday.

The money for Markstrom made sense: a $6-million AAV for a goaltender who repped Vancouver in the 2020 All-Star Game, was considered the team’s MVP by many and finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy vote. It was a foregone conclusion that Markstrom would earn a hefty raise, and it priced him out of Vancouver, which was fair. But the term? Six years. That will pay Markstrom until he’s 37 years old. The term is rather staggering.

Why? Because what the Flames are getting is debatable. Markstrom was always projected to be a star and was considered the consensus top goaltending prospect in the world for multiple years before he finally debuted with the Florida Panthers in 2010-11. When he caught on as a full-time player with the Vancouver Canucks, he began a stretch of steady, unspectacular play that was always good and never great. He posted save percentages of .915, .910 .912 and .912 in his four seasons as a full-time Canuck. He didn’t become a bona fide starter until 2017-18, and his breakout year came this past season, when his SP jumped to .918. He was truly outstanding. As one of 54 goaltenders to play at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, Markstrom managed the 16th-best SP despite facing the third-most shots per 60 and 10th-most high-danger shots per 60. He had the fifth-highest expected goals against per 60 in the NHL. He was a genuine horse for the Canucks. He finished 15th in goals saved above average per 60 at 0.20, one spot behind Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The previous three seasons? Markstrom’s GSAA was 0.00, meaning he graded out as a league-average netminder – and his expected goals against per 60 was the 42nd-highest in the league, so it’s not like he had a tougher workload then. That at least has to raise hints of suspicion as to the who the real Markstrom is. It’s not a guarantee that the Flames are getting a guy who will be a perennial Vezina threat, yet the money and term of his contract say they expect him to be. Entering Year 7 of his tenure as GM, Brad Treliving knows he’s running out of rope and had to take a big swing to push Calgary past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Flames likely aren’t done big-game hunting, either, as they still have $10.91 million in cap space, with holes to fill on defense.

So will Markstrom end up being the player his contract says he is? Or will he revert to being just pretty good? The good news is, he’s established a high floor even if the ceiling is uncertain. And if the contract ends up a flop and the Flames fail to improve? It’s likely to become a new GM’s problem down the road. It thus was no surprise to see Treliving shoot his shot. The term makes the contract risky, but the boom potential equals the bust.

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