It’s no secret that the Columbus Blue Jackets are likely to trade a goalie this offseason. Either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins are probably on the way to the highest bidder (which goaltender goes may depend on which garners the most attention and the best offer). However, the recent play of the Blue Jackets – not just the two men in masks – may very well be hurting their trade value.
Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins are under contract for one more season, and at very reasonable rates ($2.8 million and $4 million, respectively). Going into this 2020-21 compressed schedule, it looked like the Blue Jackets would need to get good goaltending from both players to reach the playoffs and, perhaps, make some noise in the postseason. As this year’s trade deadline approached, and Columbus fell out of the playoff picture, some speculated that one of the pair would be traded to a contender for a rather decent return. But the trade deadline came and went, with both goalies still in Columbus.
Statistically Speaking, 2020-21 vs. 2019-20
Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins had good statistics last season. Korpisalo owned a .911 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.60 goals-against average (GAA). Merzlikins had even better numbers, with a .923 SV% and 2.35 GAA. Prior to the COVID-19 interruption last year, Merzlikins was having a season that put his name in the hat for the Calder Memorial Trophy, awarded to the season’s top rookie. In fact, his five shutouts put him fourth on the list for rookie goaltenders.
This season, neither goalie has come close to matching last year’s performances. Korpisalo has a .906 SV% and a 2.88 GAA, while Merzlikins’ stats are .910 and 2.97. Between the two, they have only a single shutout (Merlikins, Feb. 18, 2021, vs. the Nashville Predators).
However, it’s perhaps their win-loss records that most set this season apart from last. In 2019-20, Korpisalo’s record was 19-12-5 and Merzlikins was at 13-9-8. This season, they are, respectively, 9-12-7 and 6-10-2. The bigger, problem, however, is their current trend. In Blue Jackets games since March 22, Korpisalo’s record is 1-5-2 and Merzlikins’ record is 1-8-0.
Remember that hockey is a team game and a goalie can’t win if the players in front of him don’t score. In Korpisalo’s previous eight games, the Blue Jackets were shut out twice, scored one goal once, and scored two goals once. But hold your horses! In the four games in which Korpisalo got two or fewer goals in support, he allowed three goals twice and five goals twice. In those eight games, including the one win and the two overtime losses, he allowed 32 goals, an average of four goals per game. (For statistical consistency, let’s say it’s a 4.00 GAA over those eight games.)
Merzlikins’ nine games since March 22 were rather similar. In four games, Columbus scored only one goal, but he allowed 16 goals (again, that dastardly 4.00 GAA). In two of the nine games, the Blue Jackets scored only twice, but – surprise! – Merzlikins had a 4.00 GAA in those games as well.
Ranking the Goalies
Of goalies who have appeared in at least four games so far this season, the Blue Jackets’ duo looks pretty weak. Merzlikins is 51st in GAA (2.97) and 37th in SV% (.910). Korpisalo’s numbers are worse: He’s ranked 61st in both GAA (3.21) and SV% (.896). If we consider only goalies who have been in goal during at least 10 games, Korpisalo’s GAA is 53rd of 62, and Merzlikins is 44th of 62. For SV%, Korpisalo is 53rd and Merzlikins is exactly middle-of-the-pack at 31st of 62 (.910).
Let’s constrict the peer group even more. Merzlikins has appeared in 21 games so far this season. Of the 19 goalies who have been between the pipes between 20 and 25 games, he is 11th in SV% and 15th in GAA. Korpisalo has appeared in 31 games. Of the 11 goalies who have appeared in between 30 and 35 games, Korpisalo is dead last in SV% and 10th in GAA.
The Goalie Market Will Be Glutted
Even if their numbers had been comparable to last season, Columbus might be challenged to find a good return in trade for either Korpisalo or Merzlikins. Sportrac projects 42 goalies will be unrestricted free agents this summer. Why would a team trade for a goalie with statistics and results that are, generously, middling-to-lousy when they can sign a UFA?
Pending contract offers, trades, and the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft, available goalies include recognizable names, such as Frederik Andersen, Craig Anderson, Jonathan Bernier, Chris Driedger, Devan Dubnyk, Brian Elliott, Philipp Grubauer, Jaroslav Halak, Carter Hutton, Petr Mrazek, Antti Raanta, Tuukka Rask, James Reimer, Pekka Rinne, Mike Smith, and Linus Ullmark.
Some haven’t had years that are substantially better (or as busy) as the Blue Jackets’ duo; some are getting a little long-in-the-tooth. But all are viable options for a team looking to either add a goalie for the short term or invest in a goalie for the future. A few weeks ago, the website NHL Rumors ranked the top five UFA goaltenders. The list included Rask, Jordan Binnington (since re-signed with the St. Louis Blues), Andersen, Grubauer, and Rinne.
The Outlook for a Blue Jackets Goalie Trade
I expect Columbus to trade one of their goalies this summer. Who, I project, will depend on which draws the better offer. Would the offer be better if one or both of the goalies had better statistics? Absolutely! Would the club receive better offers if the team as a whole had a better record? Probably. Will either Korpisalo or Merzlikins be traded for the top-line center the Blue Jackets so desperately need? Not unless the player is part of a package.
The team’s failure to thrive this season, as well as the goalies’ statistical drop-offs, have lessened the club’s chances to reap big rewards for trading either goalie, both of whom – as recently as perhaps midseason – could have been seen as a future No.1 for many teams in the NHL. What sort of return will a goalie trade actually bring to Columbus? We’ll see sometime this summer.