Wilson: The time may be right to trade Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom

Normally a veteran starter having a noteworthy return to form is not a reason to trade him, but these are abnormal times in Calgary

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Jacob Markstrom might be playing himself out of Calgary this year, and that’s a good thing.

Fifty-nine games played, 23 wins, and a .892 save percentage. That was Markstrom’s stat line when the lights went out on the Calgary Flames’ 2022-23 season last spring. His save rate, good for 50th in the league amongst regular goaltenders, was the player’s worst since interning as a backup in Florida and Vancouver almost 10 years ago. And while Jonathan Huberdeau’s historic drop in production drew a lot of ire last year, one could argue that it was Markstrom’s singular underperformance that cost the team a playoff appearance.

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At 33 years old, there was no guarantee that Markstrom would find his way back. Many NHL athletes hit a wall as they approach their mid-30s, with most dropping out of the league by the time they hit 35. This attrition is especially harsh for goaltenders since they can’t simply be demoted down the depth chart like a skater as father time erodes their performance.

Nevertheless, the former Vezina candidate has rebounded admirably this season from his nadir. His .908 save percentage is tied for 15th for goaltenders who have appeared in at least 15 games.

If anything, though, this number undersells Markstrom’s performance to date. Calgary stumbled out of the gates in October, with the club’s skaters struggling to switch from Darryl Sutter’s man-to-man defensive system to Ryan Huska’s more zone-based approach. Markstrom was under siege through the first 10 games, resulting in a raw save percentage that was not reflective of his efforts given the quality and volume of chances he faced each night.

According to the advanced stats website Evolving Hockey, Markstrom’s goals saved above expected (GSAx) this year climbed to 20.4 after his recent 39-save outing against the Philadelphia Flyers. That metric puts him first in the league, ahead of Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck (20.03 GSAx). For context, Markstrom finished 2022-23 with a 1.5 GSAx, while his backup, Dan Vladar, was underwater (-5.3 GSAx).

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Normally a veteran starter having a noteworthy return to form is not a reason to trade him, but these are abnormal times in Calgary. The Flames, as they begin to strum the opening strains of a rebuild, are not positioned to leverage the last two years of Markstrom’s $6 million per year salary. Nor is there any guarantee that Markstorm will sustain this level of play moving forward given his age.

Beyond the mismatch between the player’s career arc and the organization’s contention curve, we are also seeing a rare blossoming in the goaltender trade market. Because goalie supply often matches or outstrips demand, they are often difficult players to move, especially if they have any money attached to them. This season, however, there are several NHL teams with high ambitions undermined by bottom-of-the-league netminding, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche, and the Carolina Hurricanes.

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Despite their collection of high-priced, high-octane offensive players, the Maple Leafs recently sent their putative number one Ilya Samsonov down to the AHL after he slumped himself into the worst individual save percentage in the NHL.

The Devils’ trio of question marks (Akira Schmid, Nico Daws, and Vitek Vanecek) have combined to give their team an all-situations save rate of .879, which is worse than many teams manage short-handed.

The Avalanche also have a sub-.900 save percentage so far, hobbling an otherwise high-powered roster featuring Nathan MacKinnon, Miko Rantanen, and Cale Makar.

The Carolina Hurricanes arguably don’t have a single weak spot on their roster aside from the crease where Antti Raanta (-8.7 GSAx) and Pyotr Kochetkov (-2.5 GSAx) have failed to fill in for Frederik Andersen (who is out indefinitely with blood clotting concerns). Only the Devils have a worse combined save percentage.

(The Edmonton Oilers have also battled goalie challenges until recently, but we all know the Flames will not be assisting them in their hunt for a cup.)

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Markstrom’s notable bounceback and the sudden spike in goaltender demand represent a fleeting opportunity. Not just to move the large contract of an aging player who no longer fits into the organization’s plans, but to aid the rebuild by adding some future assets. This possibility was altogether unthinkable just 12 months ago.

Dustin Wolf at Calgary Wranglers practice
Calgary Wranglers goaltender Dustin Wolf was photographed during practice at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Friday, January 5, 2024. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Trading Markstrom also aligns with Calgary’s internal succession plan. Dustin Wolf was named goaltender of the year and league MVP for the Calgary Wranglers in 2022-23. This season, the 22-year-old has lost just five of 21 AHL starts and boasts a .930 save percentage. His worst full-season save rate going back to 2017-18 is the .924 SV% he managed as a pro rookie (fourth-best amongst AHL goalies that year, first amongst first-year puck-stoppers).

It’s no exaggeration to say that Wolf is one of the best prospects in hockey and by far the best netminding prospect the Calgary franchise has seen in recent memory. The time is right to move Wolf up the rotation and see what he can do as an NHLer.

The stars have aligned to give the Flames a talented prospect, some desperate trade partners, and a $6-million, 33-year-old player having a bounce-back season. While Flames general manager Craig Conroy is no doubt busy contemplating the future of his various pending unrestricted free agents, auctioning off his starter should top his current to-do list.

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