Next week, pending approval by the NHL Players Association, the league will open training camps for the teams participating in the return to play tournament as part of Phase 3. The Columbus Blue Jackets are scheduled to be one of those 24 teams and currently have 33 players taking part in their Phase 2 voluntary workouts.
Today, however, we will only focus on four of them: Joonas Korpisalo, Elvis Merzlikins, Matiss Kivlenieks, and Veini Vehvilainen. One of those four goaltenders will man the net for Columbus upon the restart, and another will dress as his backup. The other(s) will sit in the press box in case of injuries or illness to either of the two who dress.
For those unfamiliar with the rules regarding goaltenders during Phases 3 and 4, a brief refresher: during the training camps (Phase 3), teams will be able to carry unlimited goalies on the roster and allow for unlimited participation in camp. During Phase 4, the actual games, team rosters will be limited to 31 players including goalies.
So, it appears right now that the Blue Jackets will open training camp with four goaltenders. Who should they take to the bubble? Who should start? Let’s dive in.
There are two clear front runners for the position of starting netminder of the Blue Jackets as they begin their series against the Maple Leafs. Here, we will make the case for each to man the net and then make a decision.
Joonas Korpisalo was named as an NHL All Star for the first time in his NHL career this season. Before going down with an injury, Korpisalo was on a heater in the month of December: Korpisalo posted a 6-2-3 record with a .932 SV% and a 1.94 GAA for the month. For the season, Korpisalo went 19-12-5 with a .911 SV% and a 2.60 GAA. Korpisalo returned just before the season paused, playing five games before the end of the regular season but struggled to return to form. After his return, Korpisalo allowed fewer than two goals only once (against the lowly Ottawa Senators), while allowing three or more in each of the other four starts while going 1-2-2.
The case for Korpisalo getting the net: he was rusty when he returned, but when he was on his game, he was one of the two best goaltenders in the Metropolitain Division by statistics pre-All Star Break. He was the starter on opening night and the old adage says that you cannot lose your job due to injury.
Elvis started the season slowly, despite all of the hype - you might remember him getting memorably shelled by the Pittsburgh Penguins in his first NHL start. After that outing, he struggled to find consistent time until Korpisalo got hurt. That injury, however, allowed Elvis to achieve liftoff. Merzlikins finished the regular season with a better save percentage than Korpisalo did (.923 vs .911) and a better goals against average (Elvis posted a 2.35 GAA for the season compared to Korpisalo’s 2.60). Also, ESPN highlighted these stats when comparing the two:
Merzlikins’ .926 even-strength save percentage was No. 10 in the NHL. Korpisalo had the better quality start percentage at 60%, but Merzlikins’ 12.1 goals saved above average was far better than the Finn’s 1.14.
The case for Merzlikins: he had an eight game winning streak even as the team wasn’t scoring goals, he has big game experience in the World Championships while playing for Latvia as well as playoff games in Switzerland’s top pro league, and posted the better numbers for the team across the board.
Given the above, I’m going to pick Elvis Merzlikins to start in net. He posted a torrid month of January, bettering Korpisalo’s best month. During the month of January, Merzlikins went 8-2-0 with a .948 save percentage and a 1.72 goals against average. While both goalies can get hot, as evidenced by their months, Merzlikins raises the ceiling of the team just a little more than Korpisalo does. Coupled with his big game experience, and I’d give the nod to Merzlikins.
(I fully expect Torts to pick Korpisalo, but I’d pick Elvis. So it goes.)
Up next, the Jackets have two goaltenders who might make the roster as backups. They’ll certainly take one, but is it worth burning a roster spot to take two when forward/defenseman depth could be critical? The Blue Jackets this season have shown that anyone can go down with an injury at anytime, and their depth has been tested. Let’s take a look at the two goalies who could tag along.
Kivlenieks split time between the NHL and AHL this season as both starting goaltenders on the big club were hurt at various points this season. In the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters, Kivlenieks played 20 games and registered a 2.96 GAA with a .904 SV%. With the Blue Jackets, Kivlenieks posted a 2.95 GAA and an .898 SV%. For a 23 year old making his NHL debut under injury call-up circumstances, he did enough to hold his own in spot starts.
Vehvilainen, making his AHL debut this season, played 33 games for the Cleveland Monsters this season. In those appearances, he posted a 2.76 GAA and a .901 SV%. Vehvilainen made his debut in North America this season after posting excellent numbers in the Finnish league, but was passed over in three NHL Entry Drafts because of his small stature.
Who should come to the bubble?
In all likelihood, with the amount of players on the roster, it would not be surprising if the Blue Jackets brought both goaltenders. Rarely do teams think about playing their fourth goaltender in normal circumstances, but these are anything but ordinary times. Having extra backups in net couldn’t hurt. Bringing four goaltenders allows the team to carry 27 skaters, plausibly backing up every position multiple times in case of injury.
What do you think the Blue Jackets should do with the netminders? Let us know in the comments!