The Columbus Blue Jackets signed goaltender and 2014 third-round pick Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year entry level contract on Wednesday afternoon.
Instead of going to AHL Cleveland, Aaron Portzline of The Athletic reported that Merzlikins leveraged his success with HC Lugano to force the CBJ’s hand and avoid signing a tryout agreement, bypassing Cleveland altogether. He’ll use the first year of his entry-level status for the rest of this season, practicing and training with the big club in Columbus. He’s not expected to see any action, but this would indicate a spot on the Blue Jackets’ roster next season.
The 24-year-old made a name for himself with his strong play and flashy persona. Merzlikins went 22-18-0 record with HC Lugano of the Swiss National League this season, posting a 2.44 goals against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts (a career-high) in 43 appearances. He ranked tied for second in the league in wins, third in shutouts, fourth in save percentage and eighth in goals against average.
He has also shone for his home country of Latvia, posting a 1.50 GAA and .940 save percentage in last year’s World Cup as part of a strong international resume over the last few years.
He may not play in Columbus this season, but he could participate in the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championships:
There’s also a belief that unless there’s an emergency - Columbus Blue Jackets will make him available for the Latvian national hockey team for the 2019 IIHF World Hockey Championships.— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) March 20, 2019
Obviously Merzlikins avoiding Cleveland wasn’t the first choice for the Blue Jackets’ front office. The team will sign him to a one-way deal over the summer, Portzline believes, now that he will have burned through his entry-level contract. They’ll do that without having ever seen him play in a North American professional game. It’s not the ideal way to bring an international goaltender to the NHL, but he’s betting on himself and getting rewarded for success in Switzerland.
In a year where not much has gone according to plan with respect to acquisitions and personnel management, the drama around Merzlikins’s signing seems par for the course. At least he’s in Columbus and wants to be The Guy in 2019-20.