If you look closely enough at Joonas Korpisalo’s patchy beard, you can detect a few white follicles poking out of the red. Which only makes sense. He’s just 25, but it seems as though he’s been around for a long, long time. After all, he was drafted in 2012 and had been playing in North America for five years prior to taking the Columbus Blue Jackets’ net this season.
But this is all different. Playing behind Sergei Bobrovsky in the Columbus organization, waiting to find a regular turn at the NHL level was kind of like Waiting for Godot. In his and the Blue Jackets’ first season of Life After Bob, both are learning that the only way to really learn whether you’re a No. 1 goalie in the NHL is to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL.
There have been some really good games, and some that were less than good. The road to being the man has not been linear. For all the time that Korpisalo has been in North America, it’s almost like he hasn’t been a full-time player, like, ever. He played 31 games for the Blue Jackets four years ago when Bobrovsky was injured, and he has never played more than that for one team since.
Even when AHL Lake Erie went on a playoff run that ended in a Calder Cup, he platooned with Anton Forsberg. “He’s been banged around the last few years, sitting there waiting for his opportunity,” said Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, “and he’s handled himself really well.”
Bobrovsky joined the Blue Jackets the same summer Korpisalo was drafted and played the next seven years, winning two Vezina Trophies and establishing himself as the best goalie in the league in any month that is not October – this season included. Over the past three seasons, all three of which resulted in playoff appearances, Bobrovsky averaged 63 starts per season, and in the past two the Blue Jackets were in the fight of their lives to make the playoffs. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for leeway, or for a backup goalie.
But now, Bobrovsky has taken his talents to South Florida, and the Blue Jackets are left with a tandem of Korpisalo and 25-year-old freshman Elvis Merzlikins, from Latvia by way of Switzerland. Let’s say there were a fair number of pundits who were not exactly bullish on the Blue Jackets’ goaltending this season, or as Tortorella put it, “I mean, we’re supposed to suck this year.”
But that never much bothered Korpisalo. Rather than trying to shove something down people’s throats, he looks at 2019-20 as an opportunity to prove he’s a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. “I’m me, I’m not Bob,” Korpisalo said. “I know I can play really good games. I didn’t take it (personally) too much. I don’t approach it any differently. The only thing (different) is you get in a groove easily because you play more games.”
There have been some bumps in the road, as one would expect. In a late October game against Philadelphia, Korpisalo stopped 27 of 29 shots in the first two periods to stake his team to a 3-2 lead, but then he gave up four goals on 16 third-period shots (another was scored into the empty net) as the Blue Jackets watched their lead evaporate into a 7-4 loss.
I know from shooting on him in practice the last couple years how good he really is.
– Cam Atkinson
There is no disputing Korpisalo’s body language was terrible on those goals, with him slamming his stick on the ice for a couple and smashing his stick against the post after a shorthanded breakaway goal by Kevin Hayes. It was unclear whether Korpisalo was frustrated with himself or the players in front of him, but Tortorella said that behavior was unacceptable. “Can’t happen,” he told reporters a couple days after the game. “It can’t happen again. It won’t happen again. It had better not happen again. That’s unfair to everybody.”
Korpisalo has been a patient man and a good soldier for Columbus, and there’s every indication the Blue Jackets like playing in front of him. There’s also not a lot of evidence to suggest the Blue Jackets are playing any more cautiously or defensively in front of Korpisalo than they did when Bobrovsky was guarding the net.
Through the first month of the regular season, the Blue Jackets gave up an average of 31.1 shots per game, which is more than the 29.5 they gave up last season and basically in line with the level of their defensive play the past couple seasons. Through nine starts, Korpisalo was facing 4.8 high-danger shots per game, compared to the 6.4 per game Bobrovsky faced last season.
“We’ve always been confident in him, he’s just never had the chance because it’s always been Bob’s net,” said Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno. “I think you have that mental hurdle to get over sometimes where no matter how well you’re playing, it’s going to be the guy getting paid more than you who’s going to get the net a lot of nights. He’s finally gotten an opportunity to grab hold of it, and you see his preparation and professionalism is coming to the forefront. He’s paid his dues, and it’s nice to see him get rewarded because he’s a hell of a goalie and he’s showing that right now.”
Korpisalo is well liked by his teammates on a roster that has always been very tight. The Blue Jackets players who have been around for a number of years have watched Korpisalo grow and prepare for this opportunity. It is going to take a while for them to figure out what they have in him. Most goalies take until they’re 25 to develop anyway, but it might be a little longer for a guy who hasn’t been able to get into a groove regardless of whether he’s been in the NHL or the AHL.
“I know just from shooting on him in practice the last couple years how hard he battles and how good he really is,” said teammate Cam Atkinson. “Unfortunately, you can’t get in a rhythm when you play one of every 10 games. He knew the opportunity coming into this year was his to really lose, and I know he worked really, really hard in the off-season, and it really shows now.”