Blue Jackets Have a Decision to Make…Merzlikins or Korpisalo?

As the Columbus Blue Jackets 2020-21 season nears a rather merciful end, it’s time to start looking towards the future and the important decisions looming for the club. The team has already begun selling assets for the NHL Trade Deadline for the first time in years, and with Boone Jenner and Zach Werenski done for the season, there seems to be little hope left for a surprising playoff push.

One big piece of the Jackets’ future that will have to be sorted out, whether at the trade deadline or in the offseason, is which goalie to keep and which to trade moving forward. Both have played well at times for the Blue Jackets, but neither has really taken the net as their own and played too well to lose it. So who should they keep?

Let’s get a few things out of the way off the bat: as I’ve written before, NHL goaltending is some sort of magic, and it is near impossible to project goalies’ ability long-term, let alone their future performance year over year. Their success depends largely on the play of the team in front of them (see: Bobrovsky, Sergei). So instead of projecting what Elvis Merzlikins or Joonas Korpisalo could be, let’s just analyze their bodies of work thus far and which decision the Blue Jackets could make that would be the most informed.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also: goals against average (GAA) isn’t a sufficient stat to analyze goaltending performance despite its commonality, so I won’t be using it here. Instead, we’ll focus on save percentage (SV%), goals saved above average ((GSAA: league save percentage x shots on goal against) – goals against), goals saved above expected (GSAx: expected goals against – goals against) and Evolving-Hockey’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and GAR (Goals Above Replacement) model, information on all of which can be found here.

Korpisalo vs. Merzlikins Season by Season

Let’s break this down into seasons. Last year, the 2019-2020 season, was Merzlikins’ debut in the NHL and Korpisalo’s first year out from under Bobrovsky’s shadow, as the two-time Vezina netminder opted to sign with the Florida Panthers. Merzlikins had a brutal start to his campaign, with a nightmare debut in Pittsburgh followed by injury, but flourished with consistent starts in January and February, logging a .931 SV%, second-best in the NHL behind Andrei Vasilevskiy. He ended up with a .924 SV% on the season and finished fifth in Vezina trophy voting, more than impressive for a rookie netminder. Korpisalo, who battled his own injuries as well, posted a very solid .911 SV%.

However, save percentage isn’t enough to go off of, so let’s look a little deeper. Over the course of the 2019-20 season, Merzlikins accumulated a +13.21 GSAA, which was good for 6th-best in the NHL behind names like Ben Bishop, Connor Helleybuck and Tuukka Rask. His GSAx was also in the positive, albeit barely at +.41. Both were miles ahead of Korpisalo, who came in at +.43 GSAA and a -8.94 GSAx. Just for fun, Bobrovsky in Florida was a -14.92 GSAA and -19.22 GSAx, 4th and 8th worst in the league, respectively.

This season has been more of the same. Merzlikins has a higher SV%, .914 to Korpisalo’s .899; a better GSAA, +3.43 to Korpisalo’s -7.79, and a better GSAx, -5.26 to Korpisalo’s -13.01. Since Merzlikins arrived in Columbus, he has an overall WAR of +2.7 and GAR of +14.8, while Korpisalo has a WAR of 0 and a +.3 GAR. While Korpisalo has flashed brightly over the past two seasons, and Merzlikins has fought injuries a few times, it’s undeniable that the latter has been the more impressive of the two since his arrival in the NHL.

Korpisalo’s Playoff Brilliance

Now, Korpisalo did play absolutely out of his mind in the NHL bubble playoffs last fall. He was a huge difference-maker, if not the difference-maker, in the play-in series with Toronto and in Round 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning as well. Merzlikins was unfortunately injured in the playoffs last year but did post a .946 SV% in the two games he played in against the Maple Leafs.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that the Blue Jackets have from that bubble performance is that Korpisalo launched himself onto a national stage. Columbus doesn’t get a lot of media attention, especially from national hockey media in Toronto, but in the heavily watched series against the Maple Leafs, Korpisalo turned lots of heads around the NHL. Look what happened with Pierre-Luc Dubois, who was also impressive and at times dominant in the bubble, and what it meant for his reputation around the league. All of a sudden, he was a premiere rising star, one of the “most underrated” players in the NHL and arguably a top-10 center in the league – things CBJ fans already knew. His trade value subsequently skyrocketed.  

It’s not impossible that Korpisalo finds that level again, probably not consistently in the regular season, but it’s very likely he’s not a replacement-level goaltender in the NHL long-term. It seems most around the league see him as a starting-caliber goaltender, and I’m not going to argue that he isn’t. A move before the trade deadline was thought to be unlikely, but it might not be the worst idea for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen. Korpisalo’s trade value probably won’t be any higher than it is now because of the COVID-induced cap restrictions and the group of upcoming UFA goalies this offseason, and multiple Stanley Cup contenders are looking to solidify their goaltending.

Joonas Korpisalo Blue Jackets
Joonas Korpisalo (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Furthermore, we already have evidence of goaltenders playing worse once they move away from playing under Tortorella behind the Blue Jackets’ defensive system. Bobrovsky, in the two years since leaving Ohio, has posted a cumulative -15.51 GSAA and -13.46 GSAx, both significantly worse than either netminder currently in Columbus. We obviously can’t conclude which Korpisalo will be the long-term version, but it’s much more likely than not it’s the larger regular-season sample size than it is the impressive playoff run.

What it Means for the Blue Jackets

Ultimately, if the Blue Jackets internally value the two relatively similar as is widely believed, it’s probable they trade whichever goalie they get the better offer for. With the flat salary cap presumably in effect for a few years to come, Korpisalo’s trade value isn’t likely to be what it was immediately after the bubble last offseason. But his performance in the bubble should help the Jackets get a larger return than they otherwise would have, and teams should be a bit more comfortable trading for him since he’s a bit more of a known commodity.

There’s also a significant off-ice incentive for keeping Merzlikins in Columbus: he’s extremely marketable. He has a huge personality, has undeniable flair in the net, is a personality people in the locker room, media and fanbase are drawn to and isn’t afraid of the big stage or being ‘the guy.’ The Blue Jackets desperately need players like this. They’ve long been a team devoid of superstar talent, and when they do have undoubted stars of the league, they seem incapable of marketing them, whether by financial limitations or by choice. If you move Merzlikins out, you risk him becoming a true headline-grabbing superstar for another club. Allow him to further put the Blue Jackets on the NHL map and in the minds of national media and fans.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets seem likely to move on from each other (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With a lot of changes on the horizon — Riley Nash is gone, David Savard has been dealt, and John Tortorella is generally assumed to not be receiving a contract extension past this year — it seems likely a re-tool is coming. The Blue Jackets will need a player and a personality like Elvis who they can market and sell alongside superstar-potential Patrik Laine and local kid Jack Roslovic. The 1-2 of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski on the back end will help get fans in the arena and keep people excited about the team – provided Laine and Jones sign extensions. Plus, he’s just been the better goalie.

Overall, whoever has more market value and garners a larger offer will be the goaltender moved. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo have played well in stretches, but Elvis’ overall body of work in Columbus is more impressive and more trustworthy, especially when you look deeper than just the face-value statistics. It could be that neither one is the long-term solution with impressive prospect Daniil Tarasov coming in the pipeline. But until he’s ready, Merzlikins is the better candidate to bet on and keep in the union blue.

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