When goalie Elvis Merzlikins came over to North America last summer, the affable Latvian netminder brought with him a rock-star aura from his time dominating the Swiss League. But was he ready for the NHL, the best league in the world? In the end, the answer was a resounding 'yes,' as the rookie helped Columbus stay afloat in the East, despite losing a massive amount of talent in the off-season.
But after signing a new two-year contract with a cap hit of $4 million this week, Merzlikins revealed that his journey over to the NHL was pretty daunting, despite his confident reputation.
"I had huge confidence on European ice, not North American ice," he said. "I saw a cloud, or a fog, because I didn't know what to expect."
It didn't help that Merzlikins couldn't buy a win early on. He gave up seven goals in his debut against Pittsburgh and didn't earn his first win until New Year's Eve, when the Jackets beat old starter Sergei Bobrovsky's Florida Panthers. In the meantime, battery partner Joonas Korpisalo was on fire for Columbus, earning himself a spot at the All-Star Game before having to pull out due to a knee injury.
Luckily, Merzlikins had his "little goalie family" developing in Columbus, which included his buddy Korpisalo and goaltending coach Manny Legace.
"I was just learning and try to understand this hockey," Merzlikins said. "It took me a little bit - how quick it is, the shots from bad angles - and when I practised with Manny and adjusted, I got better. After the wins, I got that confidence. And when you get the confidence, you're just going: you're starting to play rock and roll and that's a good feeling."
At one point in January, Merzlikins posted three shutouts in the span of four games, as part of a personal eight-game win streak. At the time of the season's pause, his five shutouts in 33 games was the best ratio in the NHL among goaltending regulars.
The whole roller coaster was a lot to take in for the Latvian national, but with the help of his inner circle, he now understands how to better understand and deal with pressure. Sometimes, it seems, you just have to go through the fire.
"Everything is new," Merzlikins said. "Then you start your NHL dream - which just came true - on the wrong foot and it's hard because you have a lot of questions. Am I good enough? What will happen? These people here aren't joking. If you're not performing, they're going to find somebody to do it in your spot. My mental coach and my girlfriend did a great job to keep me on my feet, to not back down and give up, but to fight through and I'm really thankful for them."
Now, Columbus appears to be in great shape for the future. GM Jarmo Kekalainen may have lost Bobrovsky to the Panthers via unrestricted free agency, but it's all looking like a brilliant master plan now: Korpisalo (who recently re-signed with the Jackets for two years too) and Merzlikins made a combined $2 million and change this year and will combine for a cap hit of just $6.8 million for the next two seasons, while Bobrovsky is making $10 million a year in Florida until the summer of 2026. On the ice, both Merzlikins and Korpisalo had much better stats than Bobrovsky did this year - and Columbus was in a better playoff position than Florida, as well.
Kekalainen said that following Merzlikins and Korpisalo for years (they were drafted by the Jackets in 2014 and 2012, respectively) meant that Columbus brass was pretty well-informed on the pair and that the team had faith they could fill Bobrovsky's shoes. Having said that, the GM made sure to tamp down the hype at first.
"Every player that comes from outside the culture will have adjustments to make," Kekalainen said. "Elvis is a big personality and he was a big star in Europe. As we all know, when you come to the NHL, that really doesn't mean that much at first. You have to prove yourself over here and then you can show a little bit of your personality, or the stardom you had over there can surface and be accepted. There were a couple TV crews that wanted to follow him in training camp right off the bat and we said, 'whoa, let's wait a second and let him get acquainted with everybody, learn the style of play, learn the culture before we make a reality show on him.' "
Given how Merzlikins' rookie season has played out, there probably are some networks who would have been dying for such a storyline to broadcast. But it's pretty clear the Blue Jackets - and Merzlikins - are just happy that he was able to find his NHL potential in Columbus.
"It's an honor to be here for the next two years," Merzlikins said. "I'm really happy, I like everything here. I like the city, I really love my teammates, I like the organization, especially the fans. When I came here at the start of the season, I already felt at home. I didn't have the best start, but the fans didn't abandon me. They took me with open arms and they were always with me."