Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom beat out AHL veteran Tyler Plante for the backup goaltending job in Florida. With Scott Clemmensen out with an injury, the Panthers had no other option other than to give the 21-year-old prospect his first real chance in the NHL. The question, however, is whether coach Kevin Dineen should keep Markstrom in the NHL for the entire season or send him back down after the first month when Clemmensen is recovered.
Last season, playing for an abysmal Rochester Americans (AHL) club, Markstrom went 16-20-1 with a .907 save percentage and 2.98 goals against average. After seeing him play five or six times in person, it was easy to tell he has exceptional size and quickness. But he struggled badly at times with his stick and positioning.
Before losing most of the second half of his season to an injury, though, he was being much more conservative with his stick, often freezing the puck when opposing defenders were crashing down. He was also starting to get the idea of where he was between the pipes and where he needed to be in certainespecially shorthandedsituations. Before playing in the AHL, he was able to dominate on size and athleticism alone. He couldn't do that at the AHL level. But he appeared to be responding to coaching and improving.
Even though Clemmensen won't be out longhis knee surgery wasn't majorMarkstrom is going to get a chance to face NHL competition. The Panthers signed Jose Theodore to be their starting goaltender. The 35-year-old played 32 games last season for the Minnesota Wild, winning 15 and notching a .916 save percentage. In the previous two seasons, Theodore played 47 and 57 games as the starter for the Washington Capitals. Theodore shouldn't be seeing back-to-back action very often, even early in the year. Markstrom should have his chance to impress.
If Clemmensen is out around one month as he is expected to be, the Panthers will have 13 games between October 8 and November 8. It might be tough to get playing time because in that span, they only have two back-to-backs and three days in between games several times. Ideally, the Panthers would want Markstrom to play home games against lesser opponents to get a feel for the NHL game. That won't be easy to manage. In the first month, the Panthers play the Capitals twice, Lightning three times, Sabres twice, and the Penguins and Blackhawks once.
But what should the Panthers do after the first month?
Send him down
The argument for letting the rookie sink or swim revolves around whether the Panthers can be a competitor. They will not be deep enough into the season after one month to determine whether they are in or out of the race yet, but it's difficult to see Florida doing any more than competing for an eighth spot down the stretch. But if they compete against the Capitals, Sabres, Lightning, and Pens in the first month, it would make it more difficult not to send Markstrom down.
Markstrom also needs polishing. The technical aspects of his game have not caught up with his athleticism. He could end up getting frustrated at the NHL level and feel his demotion was not about Clemmensen coming back and more about his injury. That isn't what the Panthers want.
Keep him up
Florida coach Kevin Dineen has sent mixed messages to the media after announcing Markstrom would be on the opening day roster. "He earned the roster spot," Dineen told reporters. "At the end, it was performance-based. It wasn't potential-based for me. We're not here to sell the future. Guys who perform on the ice are going to earn their way into the lineup."
If that's true, Markstrom could play himself into being the starter. While it's reasonable to think the young goalie needs more time to grow and learn how to play at the highest level, the Panthers have an improved defense with the additions of Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell as well as defensive-minded forwards Scottie Upshall and Kris Versteeg. Markstrom wouldn't be stepping into the best situation, say as Jimmy Howard did with Detroit, but he wouldn't exactly be thrown to the wolves like he was in his one game with a depleted Panthers roster last season.
If he starts poorly, how much damage could actually be done, considering who the Panthers' goalies are now? Put it this way: the difference between the best goalie in the league and an average netminder is
20-25 goals, according to stat guru Tom Awad. By that logic, even if Markstrom is below average, what could the worst difference be between a Theodore/Clemmensen combo and Markstrom playing 50 or so games and Theodore around 30? Not likely enough goals to swing the Panthers into the playoffs.
Not to mention that if Markstrom is the starter, Clemmensen or Theodore could be traded to a team either in need of a goalie due to injury or to a team desperate for a backupsay, Detroit.
Overall, the decision for the Panthers will be difficult. Dale Tallon put a lot into the offseason to convince his fan base that Florida can be a winner. Playing Markstrom might send the wrong message. It could also end with the rookie being the superior goaltender and giving the Panthers a better chance to win.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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