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Don’t Fear the Keeper: Are the Columbus Blue Jackets afraid of Merzlikins becoming a Star?

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Speculation over management’s concern of “Elvis unleashed” fuels trade rumors.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Columbus Blue Jackets Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The trade deadline has come and gone, and both Columbus Blue Jackets goalies remain on the roster. It’s no secret that the Jackets will be trading one of their young-ish goaltenders in the near future. In today’s NHL where a strong goalie tandem is pretty much a requirement for sustained success, the Blue Jackets do have a very formidable duo (although the numbers this year would make you think otherwise). Both Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have shown in stretches that they are absolutely capable of carrying the load as an unquestioned #1. But who is the right choice moving forward?

While originally this trade had been seen by most as more of an offseason move, recent rumors were circulating that General Manager, Jarmo Kekalainen, was willing to move one of his goalies at the trade deadline as it became evident the Jackets would be sellers.

The most prevalent name in those rumors was Elvis Merzlikins. Multiple teams were said to have inquired about the 27-year-old netminder. The Bruins, Oilers, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs and the Sabres (come on down Jack Eichel!) were just some of the clubs who were reported to have reached out.

However, one “rumor” that has really stuck with me was a quote from Aaron Portzline. He hinted that the Blue Jackets were leaning towards sticking with Joonas Korpisalo, as they are uncomfortable with “Elvis unleashed” should he be the No. 1 and, God forbid, becomes a star.

What does that even mean? Am I misinterpreting this somehow? Did something get lost in translation?

How is it ever a bad thing for a player to become a bona fide star, not to mention at what is arguably the most important and most noticeable position? It just left me scratching my head, and to be completely honest, a little bit discouraged.

Now, obviously the points that follow would be moot if I thought Joonas Korpisalo was simply the better player. However, that isn’t the case. In fact, the numbers aren’t even that close, although there is a much smaller NHL sample size for Merzlikins. There are multiple reasons, outside of on-ice performance, that illustrate why Elvis is the more logical choice for the Blue Jackets.

Star Power

Let’s face it, we don’t root for one of the most exciting teams in the league. Maybe that changes with a new bench boss who allows the team to play a different, more up-tempo, offensively-minded style, but that’s a topic for another day. Aside from winning games, the Blue Jackets need to give fans reasons to spend their hard-earned money to attend games and support the team.

Recently, Forbes ranked the Blue Jackets the 29th most valuable franchise in the NHL ahead of only the Panthers and Coyotes. While a large portion can be blamed on COVID, the Jackets operating income last year was almost -$11m. It’s no secret that Jackets have had financial troubles in the past and tend to operate in the red.

While it won’t solve their financial problems, wouldn’t it make sense to have an insanely marketable player to help boost ticket sales and chip away at that operating loss? Now obviously that would require an improvement in current marketing efforts, but when you have a potential star player with a rock star persona, who’s name just happens to be Elvis… I mean half your job is already done.

There is just so much more potential that the organization could capitalize on, especially if this team will most likely be going through a rebuild reload. I would hate to see another team reap the benefits of a potentially special player. Hockey is supposed to be fun and entertaining. Merzlikins offers both.

I’m not sure if management thinks Elvis will have an ego or may not be the best teammate if given the reigns. To me, this just seems like a lazy take to declare that someone with that big of a personality would be trouble down the line. Isn’t Torts always looking for some “swagger?” Maybe there is information behind the scenes that Elvis craves a bigger spotlight (as we’ve unfortunately witnessed in years past), but there hasn’t been any indication of that. In fact, it seems to be the complete opposite.

He’s One of Us

I won’t go so far as to say the Jackets have an insecure fanbase (although who can blame us), but I just don’t see how you can trade a player like Elvis who has, by all indications, fully embraced being a Columbus Blue Jacket. Elvis is a passionate guy, one who wears his heart on his sleeve. I don’t think his love for the organization, the city, and maybe most of all, the fans, is an act. Is this not what the fans need at this time, having experienced mostly disappointment and heartbreak in the last few years with the exodus of talent from the roster? Sergei Bobrovsky was universally loved here, and in my opinion, it isn’t a stretch to think that Elvis could surpass that even. I mean c’mon, the guy wears the Columbus skyline on his pads, and thinks of the 5th Line as his family.

Contract

It’s not really going out on a limb to say that contracts will play crucial role for the future for the position. Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins will hit UFA status after next season for the first time in their careers. I’m not sure either is in a position to chase a seven year contract like our last UFA goaltender did, but you’d have to assume they would each like to secure their future with some term (not to mention more money). Elvis would be the pricier option as he currently has a $4m cap hit compared to Korpisalo’s $2.8m. In the end, it is possible that Elvis could price himself out of town, largely depending on the new contracts for Seth Jones, Patrik Laine, and potentially Zach Werenski. This is the only “con” for Elvis in my opinion, but at the same time, it may also make him more difficult to trade in this new flat cap world.

Jarmo Kekalainen has gone on record saying that he considers Daniil Tarasov as the team’s top prospect. Now that Tarasov has made his way to North America, the clock for both Elvis and Korpi may have already started ticking. With Tarasov getting his first taste of North American hockey in Cleveland this year, it’s not far-fetched to imagine he could see his NHL debut as early as next year. Since Tarasov is so young, he will most likely need some time to mature and acclimate to the NHL as an understudy before assuming the net as the starter. Whichever goalie is willing to take less term may ultimately be the one who sticks around, until Tarasov is ready that is.

Elvis is still newer in the league, and whether or not we want to admit, does have a bit of an injury history already. Those factors make me believe that he could be more willing to take a modest raise on another bridge contract to take over the crease for a few more years until Tarasov is ready.

TL;DR : With great risk comes great reward.

There will inherently be some risk in re-signing Elvis as “the guy,” but I think the rewards far outweigh whatever risks the Blue Jackets’ brass perceive. While there are definitely arguments to be made for trading Elvis and keeping Korpisalo, the fear of “Elvis unleashed” and him becoming a star should never be one of them.

Elvis is a rock star, not a diva.