It’s no secret that success in the NHL relies on goaltending. Strong goaltending can hide the flaws of even the worst NHL teams, and poor goaltending can cause loss after loss for even the most talented teams. The Calgary Flames are no different, and will require top-tier goaltending from their tandem next season in order to have success.
After a disappointing 2020–21 season in which starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom struggled after returning from injury, the group will need a strong bounce back year from their goalie in order to improve upon their record from last year.
With captain Mark Giordano being selected in the expansion draft in the offseason weakening team defense considerably, it’s absolutely critical for the team that the goaltending improves. Strangely, worse defense may actually help Markstrom rebound. Throughout his career, heavier workloads have generally led to more impressive results.
Even considering his one season in Calgary, he performed better when the team’s defense was worse. Prior to his injury, when Geoff Ward was in charge, Markstrom put up much better numbers than upon his return. While this is of course attributable in large part due to rust and possibly being rushed back from injury to help with the playoff push, the reality that he has generally performed better with heavier workloads may explain why he couldn’t regain his top form in the second part of his season.
Markstom’s injury: before and after
Here is a look at his numbers before his injury (under Ward) and after his injury (all but one game under Sutter). A quick reminder that Fenwick refers to any unblocked shot attempt, and goals saved above expected is an advanced metric that subtracts goals allowed from the number of goals an expected goals model (in this case Evolving Hockey’s model) would predict against the same shot attempts. All data is courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com.
|Shots Against per 60||31.7||25.8|
|Fenwick Against per 60||42.1||35.5|
|Goals Saved Above Expected per 60||-0.12||-0.33|
Facing nearly six fewer shots per game after his injury, you might expect Markstrom to find a new gear, his performance reaching even greater heights. Instead, he struggled to regain form, costing the team valuable points down the stretch, and staying true to his form by playing better when faced with more shots.
Where some goalies may find the physical toll of facing repeated shot attempts leads them to struggle over time, it seems like Markstrom performs better when really being put to the test on the ice. Maybe he loses focus if there are long stretches between shots, or maybe his muscles start tightening up on him, but whatever the reason, those struggles with low-event games didn’t just start last season.
Markstrom’s career workload
It’s not new for Markstrom to do better with heavier workloads either. Since joining the league in 2011, it’s been a consistent pattern in his game. This chart shows Markstrom’s Fenwick against per 60 minutes of ice time (his workload) in green, along with his goals saved above expected per 60 minutes (his performance) in blue, across the length of his career. Note that I removed seasons where Markstrom played fewer than 10 games.
Even before his career began to take flight in 2015, Markstrom was affected by his preference for heavy workloads. More recently, the extremes in his performance haven’t been as significant, but are still clearly correlated with workload.
The two lines on the chart follow each other closely. They show that in the 2021 season, Markstrom played behind some of the best defense—in terms of limiting Fenwick against—he has in his career, and also put up some of his worst results. The most important data is the most recent data, and his past several years show a connection between workload and performance that may be setting him up for failure going forward with the Flames.
The distinctive characteristic of coach Sutter’s system is lockdown defense, and they have an expensive starting goalie that performs his best when facing lots of action. While the traffic he’s faced under Sutter could still rise in response to the weaker defense being iced next season, it will still be low if Sutter’s history is any indication.
This suggests that Markstrom will be put into a situation most goalies would dream about, having solid team defense in front of him, and actually suffer for it. No team, and certainly not a team coached by Sutter, is going to sacrifice defense to hopefully kickstart the goalie. That’s a ridiculous gamble.
Hopefully, Markstrom recognizes this weakness in his game and is working eagerly to improve it before October. He’s an elite goalie, and paid as one. The team needs him to get back to that level and stay there.
Exposure to low-event hockey
There’s just no way around it. Markstrom must adapt to his new, lighter workload. As the chart showed, he played some of the worst hockey of his career last season even after his strong start under Ward. While his injury problems can’t be discounted, he was still cleared to play which means he needed to be at his best.
With five more years on his contract, he needs to get back into form immediately. Recognizing he won’t be seeing the same amount of shots as he did in Vancouver and adapting to become better equipped for a lighter workload—be that by making mental or physical adjustments—will be the key to Markstrom’s 2021–22 season.
A coaching change isn’t coming. The team has made move after move this offseason to create a low-event, defense-first team to suit Sutter’s style. The team isn’t moving on from Markstrom, either. Aside from his no-move clause, he was one of Treliving’s latest big swings in free agency, and the top level he can play at is elite. The reality is it will be on Markstrom and the goalie coach alone to improve his play in low-event games.
Whether or not he is able to adapt will be a key storyline to watch in the 2021–22 season. If he does, the Flames can take advantage of a weak Pacific division and find their way into the playoffs. If not, it looks to be another disappointing season in Calgary.
Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images