Replacing your No. 1 goaltender is never easy. It's even more difficult when said No. 1 netminder is Sergei Bobrovsky, the best the Columbus Blue Jackets have ever had.
Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, departed for Florida this past summer, though not before helping the Blue Jackets win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history back in April. And if it wasn't for his late-season heroics, which saw him win 10 of his final 13 regular season starts to help the Blue Jackets secure the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, that wouldn't have been possible. But following his departure, the 2019-20 campaign has become about filling the gap left by Bobrovsky, and it will be done by committee – a European committee, specifically.
For now, Joonas Korpisalo, one of the five European netminders the Blue Jackets have under contract, is slated to lead the team in net, but he's on a one-year, show-me deal and consistency has been an issue in his career. Is he the long-term solution? His career path says no, though he's never had a better opportunity. But if Korpisalo isn't the answer, who is? Columbus may need look no further than Elvis Merzlikins and Veini Vehvilainen, who helped the Blue Jackets to a third-place finish at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament. Vehvilainen, 22, won both starts, while Merzlikins, 25, went 1-1-0, giving his team a fighting chance in both contests despite a rather unspectacular .889 save percentage.
Before either can unseat Korpisalo, though, there are adjustments to be made. The first? The smaller North American ice. Merzlikins had just a handful of practice runs prior to Columbus' playoff run in the spring to adapt, while Vehvilainen's lone experience on an NHL-sized rink came at the 2015 World Junior Championship in Montreal, an event at which he struggled. "It’s a huge difference to play on the smaller ice compared to the big one in Europe," Merzlikins said. "Different angles, different shots, different situations. So you have to adjust to that and keep working on it."
And the adaptation will take time.
"I know the goalie coaches, Manny (Legace), Jim Corsi, Niklas Backstrom, have all been talking about how their readiness has to be as soon as the puck enters the offensive zone," said Cleveland Monsters coach Mike Eaves, who led the Blue Jackets in Traverse City. "In Europe, it’s about getting it deep, and then spreading. Things happen quicker (in North America). You can talk about it all day long, (but) you’ve got to get there and experience it first-hand. So it’s invaluable for them. You saw good things from them."
Both goalies will get the chance to strut their stuff at Columbus' camp and it's likely they'll taste some pre-season action. And for now, Merzlikins, a two-time Swiss League goaltender of the year and a standout in Spengler Cup and World Championship play, is expected to start the season as backup, while Vehvilainen, who won back-to-back Finnish League top goaltender awards, projects for a third-stringer spot and time spent in the AHL. "My goal is to play in the NHL," Vehvilainen said. "I don’t know if it (will happen) this season or next season or whatever, but my goal is to play there. I will work for it every day."
The jury is still out as to who'll have what it takes to be the starting goaltender long term, which makes this season all the more interesting. The Blue Jackets aren't going to be a serious contender this season, meaning whoever starts on any given night will be busy. There will be audible footsteps behind Merzlikins and Vehvilainen, too, as Danil Tarasov and Matiss Kivlenieks aren't far behind in the depth chart.
"Everyone wants to be No. 1. At the end of the day, it’s the decision of the coach," Merzlikins said. "Everyone on the team, we’re going to play with each other, not against each other. Having a lot of good goalies is good for the team, and we’re going to do everything we can to win games."
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.