The Blue Jackets entered 2019-20 in a transition phase. For the first time in nearly a decade, Sergei Bobrovsky was absent from Columbus’ crease, departing in the off-season by way of a free agent pact with the Florida Panthers, and there wasn’t a single proven netminder picked up by the Blue Jackets who was set to take his place. Instead, Columbus chose to leave things in the (glove) hands of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. It appeared to be one of the weakest goaltending duos in the league.
Concerns of reliability were understandable. When Bobrovsky was healthy, Korpisalo rarely saw action, mustering a 41-31-9 record through four seasons of work. Meanwhile, Merzlikins hadn’t seen a single second of NHL action. On paper, it wasn’t promising. Much wasn’t expected of the tandem. And that’s what has made the past two months so special, as both netminders – first Korpisalo and later, in the wake of an untimely injury, Merzlikins – have emerged as starter material.
For Korpisalo, his real rise began in December when he appeared in 12 games, posted a 6-2-3 record and exceptional underlying numbers. Among the 31 goaltenders to play at least 300 minutes at 5-on-5 throughout December, his .943 save percentage ranked third, 5.69 goals-saved above average ranked fourth and his 1.52 goals-against average was better than any other keeper. In large part thanks to his play in December, Korpisalo earned a surprise spot in the NHL All-Star Game – did anyone have Korpisalo as a potential all-star two months ago? – but any plans he had to attend were ruined by a Dec. 29 injury that resulted in knee surgery and subsequent several-week timeline for recovery.
Unfortunate as that injury was for the Blue Jackets, however, it has allowed Merzlikins, a heralded prospect whose arrival excited the Columbus fanbase, the chance to shine. Since taking over the crease on Dec. 31, the Latvian has put up a 5-2-1 record and some of the best numbers in the league. Among the netminders with at least 150 minutes at 5-on-5 since New Year’s Eve, Merlikins’ .949 SP ranks fourth, his 1.68 GAA ranks sixth and no goaltender has a higher GSAA than the current Blue Jackets No. 1’s 5.91 mark. Add to it his fun, erratic style and the big shutout victory he posted over the Vegas Golden Knights last week and there’s evidence of the upside Merzlikins possesses.
It’s any team’s dream to have two young goaltenders duking it out and putting up fantastic numbers, especially during a campaign that was supposed to be spent rebuilding. Merzlikins has taken advantage of the opportunity and has mitigated the damage done by the loss of Korpisalo. But Merzlikins’ recent performance does raise an important question: who do the Blue Jackets roll with when Korpisalo is ready to return in the coming weeks?
The easiest answer is for the goalies to split duty and for Columbus to ride the hot hand. That has its benefits. Korpisalo showed he can do pre-injury and continuing to use Merzlikins gives him the chance to gain further confidence that he can compete at the NHL level. That’s something the Blue Jackets should keep in mind as Merzlikins has been projected to be the team’s future starting goaltender for a while now. But the comes the issue of the playoff starter. If the Blue Jackets continue to move up the Eastern Conference and make the post-season. At that point, Columbus will want one of their netminders to be The Guy, something neither goalie has had to be at this level.
So, while figuring out who will start the majority of the second half is the most pressing issue, the long-term plan has to be considered, too. Both goaltenders are restricted free agents at season’s end, but both can likely be brought back without the Blue Jackets breaking the bank. Maybe that means the answer in Columbus is to split the starts not just over the next few months, but over the next few years. We’ve seen a change in the goaltending philosophy – playing starters less in order to get more rest – and it seems both of the Blue Jackets’ goaltenders can handle that.
Don’t expect this conversation to have a conclusion any time soon, however. Veini Vehvilainen is playing well enough in Cleveland that it’s realistic to believe he’d be able to hold his own next season, and that just means the crease becomes more crowded come 2020-21 if Korpisalo and Merzlikins stick around. Maybe that’s a problem, but it’s pretty good problem to have.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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