My last article was an attempt to dive into the defensive issues surrounding the Columbus Blue Jackets and goaltenders. Since that article on Feb. 19, the Blue Jackets are 2-6-1, and obviously, a recent five-game losing streak is responsible for some ugly numbers. Over that span Columbus has allowed 28 goals — scoring a league-worst 18 — allowing 16 5v5, and seven while 4v5.
In that February article, my thought was there tended to be more blame thrown at the goalies as opposed to what appeared to be the true culprit: Bad team defense.
Now I want to say this: No matter the true culprit, I blame everyone for this team’s mediocrity. ‘You are what your record says you are’ is a Bill Parcells quote and it reigns true. The Blue Jackets are 10-12-5 in a shortened 56-game season and six points out of the last Central Division playoff spot. We know the team doesn’t score a lot and the power play has been bad for years.
Defense and goaltending have been John Tortorella's blueprint for success.
Joonas Korpisalo has made the bulk of the starts while Elvis Merzlikins was sidelined with an upper-body injury. Following the first article and trying to identify the root of the issues, I was doing a podcast with Max Bultman of The Athletic and I asked him for his go-to statistic for rating team defense, which he said to be xGA/60.
The other day when I checked, I was surprised to see the Jackets are right around the top 10 5v5 in this category per Natural Stat Trick. As Max told me, this stat is all about shot volume and shot quality, and this stat excludes the goaltender.
In 2019-20 the Blue Jackets were third in xGA/60 (2.04).
Speaking of the goalies, Tortorella’s alternating carousel between Korpisalo and Merzlikins went off the tracks once Merzlikins was down with an injury. First due to a concussion that Merzlikins himself confirmed, and then a bone bruise in his arm suffered in February against the Predators. Korpisalo has started all eight games since, including a relief appearance against Nashville. To date, Korpisalo has started 20 of the Blue Jackets' 27 games, and 15 of the last 18 games.
Merzlikins has started seven games and is 3-3-1 2.81 GAA, .917 SV%.
Pale Dragon mentioned on this week’s edition of The Cannon Cast that Korpisalo might not be best suited to be a workhorse, and certainly, in today’s NHL, it’s increasingly rare that we do see a starter make a bulk amount of starts like we’re used to seeing, Sergei Bobrovsky and the like notwithstanding. There tends to be a 1A:1B mentality and Columbus arguably has that with Korpisalo and Merzlikins. Riding one as the hot hand is nice when it’s working, but not when it becomes the only solution.
After looking up the Blue Jackets xGA/60 and going back to Max with my findings, he said “No that makes sense. Is the PK bad?”
At 72.7% it’s not good. He said the Detroit Red Wings are in a similar boat and he had a lot of comps towards the Blue Jackets compared to the Wings a few weeks ago when I spoke with him. Although interestingly enough, the Blue Jackets 1.93 xGA/60 on the penalty kill still rates well.
When asking him what his go-to statistic is for rating goaltenders, he said GSAx, which compares expected goals the team allowed to the goals the goaltender gave up. Korpisalo, at -11.64, trends at the bottom of the league per Evolving-Hockey, with only Carter Hart, Thomas Greiss, and Matt Murray worse.
Merzlikins, with fewer games played, is -4.1.
When going back and looking at Korpisalo’s GSAx from opening night through Feb. 19 his GSAx was -7.39. Clearly not great and has only gotten worse since. Again, the losing streak doesn’t help and games like the 5-0 loss against the Stars last Saturday night don’t help. If Merzlikins is healthy during this stretch, maybe numbers are a little better, but it doesn’t appear like it would be as much of an improved difference.
At least when you boil down to what Korpisalo really is. From an eyeball test, my eyeball test, he seems at least like a capable, serviceable goaltender and that’s what he is. We’ve seen games that were bad luck for him and the defensive play in front was spotty.
Being a serviceable goaltender can be good enough and we saw that in the playoff bubble last year. He’s certainly a guy that can get the job done. Merzlikins probably has a higher ceiling and can be a shining star like he showed last year with consistent playing time.
Last season, Merzlikins was among the top half of goalies with a GSAx of 0.41 over 32 starts. Korpisalo, an All-Star, was still in the negatives at -8.94.
For some extra context, Bobrovsky was first in GSAx (45.1) in his Vezina-winning season of 2016-17, and -2.84 in his last season with Columbus in 2018-19. In that 18-19 season, Bob was 37-24-1, .913 SV% (just above average for the 2018-19 season), and 2.58 GAA. But he also led the league with nine shutouts. We know his knack for stealing lots of games during his Columbus tenure.
Seeds is right, nothing about Korpisalo’s .895 SV% and 3.15 GAA screams out at you. I also feel like when used a tad more conservatively, similarly to what PD was saying about him, and not being used as a workhorse, it would allow for some better numbers. Particularly over the last handful of games. A little more rest wouldn’t hurt anybody.
I know there are lots of other stats and charts that can help illustrate additional key factors, but looking at the xGA/60 and the GSAx for what they are, we can quickly see where things are trending.
Some more goals and a better penalty kill, and well, lots of things would allow this team to be better. As always right now, and more than ever, the goaltenders have to be perfect. The defense isn’t what it was and yet they’re still trending in the right direction and doing their part it would seem. Imagine if guys like Andrew Peeke and Dean Kukan are allowed to play?