When the Columbus Blue Jackets announced Wednesday that they had signed Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, entry-level contract for next season, GM Jarmo Kekalainen called Merzlikins “the best goaltender outside of the NHL right now.” Former NHL coach Bob Hartley, who coached Merzlikins with the Latvian national team, said the goalie’s demeanour reminded him of Patrick Roy.
That’s some serious hype there. But it’s clear the Blue Jackets were eager to get Merzlikins into the fold. How eager? Well, consider that they’re willing to pay him more than $150,000 – $92,500 in bonus money and about $63,000 in pro-rated salary if he spends the last two weeks of the season on the NHL roster. All that for a goalie who may not play a game with the Blue Jackets this season.
What’s more, the fact that Merzlikins signed a contract for the rest of the season means he will fulfill his entry-level commitments and will be free to sign a one-way contract with the Blue Jackets next season rather than a two-way deal. You don’t do that kind of thing unless you’re really, really serious about a guy. The Blue Jackets’ third-round pick in 2014 was recently ranked as the organization’s No. 3 prospect in THN’s annual Future Watch edition.
And Merzlikins might just be worth all the effort. The 24-year-old has become something of a cult hero with Lugano in Switzerland over the past five seasons, winning the Jacques Plante Trophy as the top goaltender in the Swiss League in 2015-16 and 2017-18. But it has been on the world stage where Merzlikins has proved his worth. Last year in Denmark, Merzlikins led Latvia to the quarterfinal, where it lost 3-2 to Sweden, the team that eventually went on to win the gold medal. Merzlikins had a .937 save percentage in the tournament, but it was his work against teams made up largely of NHL shooters that was so impressive. Along with the one-goal loss to Sweden, the Latvians lost 3-2 to USA in overtime and 2-1 to Canada, also in overtime. In those three games, the Latvians were outshot by a combined 97-66, with Merzlikins posting a .948 save percentage.
Merzlikins will arrive in Columbus as soon as his immigration paperwork can be completed. It’s expected he’ll spend the rest of the season as the No. 3 goalie behind Sergei Bobrovsky and Joonas Korpisalo, then will once again play for Latvia in the World Championship once the Blue Jackets’ season ends. Speaking of that, it’s pretty clear the Blue Jackets are greasing the skids for life after Bobrovsky, their two-time Vezina Trophy winner who is expected to bolt as an unrestricted free agent after this season.
And Merzlikins projects to be a big part of that future. Barring the Blue Jackets signing a free agent of their own this summer, it’s expected he’ll compete with Korpisalo for the No. 1 job in Columbus next season. There has been speculation that Merzlikins timed his NHL arrival with the conclusion of Bobrovsky’s deal in Columbus. If that is indeed the case, you have to really like the kid’s chutzpah. It appears he has no shortage of confidence in himself and feels he’s ready to take the next step.
How well he does in the NHL is anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty clear that the time has come for him to see how he stacks up against the best players in the world. And let’s face it. Teams are guessing more on goalies than they are at any other position. Could Merzlikins be the next Ilya Bryzgalov, a goalie with a boatload of personality and talent to match who flopped at the NHL level? It’s possible. But he could also become the next Bobrovsky, who came over at the age of 22 as an undrafted and unheralded goalie and developed into one of the NHL’s elite stoppers. Or that instead could happen with Danil Tarasov, a 19-year-old third-rounder from 2017 who’s playing in Russia, or Veini Vehvilainen, a 22-year-old sixth-rounder in 2018 who was Finland’s best goaltender and won the league championship last season with Karpat and could repeat the feat this season. Nobody knows with goalies.
But the time to find out with Merzlikins is now. “He has been a great talent on an OK team in an OK league with a pretty easy schedule,” said one NHL executive. “But he’s also been on of the best goalies in the World Championship three years in a row.”