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Vancouver's Jacob Markstrom has hit his stride in the middle of his career

The 29-year-old just made his first-ever appearance at the NHL All-Star Game and the honor was well-earned. With the big Swede between the pipes, the Canucks sit in a surprising first-place position in a topsy-turvy Pacific Division.

Slowly but surely, Jacob Markstrom has climbed the ranks of NHL goaltenders. This past weekend, the 29-year-old Vancouver Canucks starter played in his first NHL All-Star Game, which was a nice bit of recognition for a guy who has helped his team to a surprising first-place perch in the Pacific Division.

“It’s humbling for sure,” Markstrom said. “But for me personally, I feel like I’ve put in so much time and effort to help Vancouver win. My teammates and our defensemen have done a tremendous job helping me and I can’t thank them enough.”

Admittedly, it sometimes seemed like Markstrom was a placeholder in Vancouver as the Canucks patiently developed star prospect Thatcher Demko, with another young gamer in Michael DiPietro following him. But Markstrom’s .916 save percentage is the best mark of his NHL career, not counting the .923 he put up in seven games with the Florida Panthers way back in 2011-12.

“It’s been a work in progress,” Markstrom said. “I felt like a couple years ago I started taking more steps. I worked out with old goalie Johan Holmqvist this summer and he did a great job helping me take it to the next level.”

With Demko still finding his way in the NHL, Markstrom has been crucial to Vancouver’s success and the 6-foot-6 Swede suddenly has a lot of leverage heading into the summer, when he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. Markstrom is playing off the final year of a three-year pact that saw him earn an average annual salary of $3.6 million and given how many teams are looking for starting netminders right now, he should be in high demand.

That is, of course, if the Canucks let him go to market. Keeping Markstrom in the fold for at least a little longer would be great for both Vancouver and Demko, while the team’s young core has impressed Markstrom.

“From watching the past three years with Bo Horvat at the All-Star Game, then Brock Boeser, then ‘Petey’ (Elias Pettersson) two years in a row and now Quinn Hughes, we’re doing really good with our player development and drafting,” he said. “The future is looking bright in Vancouver.”

And the present is looking pretty good for Markstrom. Heading into the All-Star Break, the netminder had won eight of his past 10 decisions and, assuming he doesn’t drop off the face of the planet, Markstrom will surpass his career-best for wins – which currently stands at 28. He’s at 18 right now and the Canucks will need all the victories they can get in a very competitive divisional race.

While the Pacific is certainly the weakest of the NHL’s four divisions this year – the Canucks have the least amount of points among division leaders, while the Edmonton Oilers have the least amount of points for a second-place team – a playoff spot is no guarantee since the teams are so clustered together.

Vancouver is now in that intriguing part of its rebuild where the pieces are basically all there, albeit with some of the players still in their career infancy. A playoff push was the obvious step, but thanks to Markstrom and several of his high-end teammates, home-ice advantage in the post-season is a real possibility. Not bad for a 29-year-old who is really just hitting his stride now.

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