The Columbus Blue Jackets have a whole lot of things that need to be done this summer. Trading a goalie should not be on that list. Top on the to-do list: hiring a new coach. Following that, there’s deciding on what the style (and culture) of the team will be. The latest elephant in the room also needs to be addressed: What to do with Seth Jones, now that he’s made it known he wants out. Yes, there seems to be no question that either Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins should be traded – the team can’t continue with the “1A/1B” goalie situation.
Since the Blue Jackets moved neither goalie at the 2021 trade deadline, the prevailing opinion is that they must make a trade this offseason. Picture me blowing a raspberry here – trading either goalie this summer would be a mistake. I can hear it now: “That’s crazy – they’ll be free agents at the end of next season!” Yup, that’s true. If the club doesn’t sign one or the other to an extension, they both become unrestricted free agents (UFAs) next summer. But guess what? That doesn’t change if they’re traded in August or in October or in December. Their free-agent status is exactly the same if they’re traded this summer or during next season.
Yes, the Blue Jackets Should Trade a Goalie
For the past two seasons, since the departure of Sergei Bobrovsky as a free agent after the 2018-19 season, the Blue Jackets have used Korpisalo and Merzlikins as goalies “1A/1B,” splitting the game starts between them (when both have been healthy). Pretty much gone are the days of an NHL team giving the starting goalie 70+ starts and the backup just an occasional game, usually as part of a back-to-back series. Not to say that some goalies weren’t busy during the 2020-21 season.
Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets started 45 of the 56 games, equivalent to about 68 games in an 82-game season. Of course, he is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the best goalie in 2019-20. Jacob Markstrom (Calgary Flames), Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay Lightning), and Jordan Binnington (St. Louis Blues) were the only other goalies to start over 40 games last season.
While it has been quite a boon for Columbus to have two top-end goalies, especially with each spending time on the injury list, it’s not a sustainable model. During their end-of-season “exit interviews” with the media, both Korpisalo and Merzlikins expressed a desire to be the number one goalie. Korpisalo spoke about getting into “the groove” when a goalie gets to play a lot of games in a row:
(You’ll find that segment at about the 9:50 mark of the interview.) About a minute later, Brian Hedger of the Columbus Dispatch asked a follow-up question: “Do you feel that both of you are kind of on the verge of being just top number one options in this league right now?” Korpisalo’s answer? “I think so. I mean we’ve been playing here, I think we’re both great goalies.”
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Merzlikins, the more flamboyant of the two, answered a similar question in a more direct fashion: “Nobody is stupid here. We understand that there’s two number one goalies in one team and if we stay? I don’t think so that we’re both going to stay, but you never know. Again, I don’t want to go into the business, but even Korpi – he wants to play, I want to play. And shar(ing) the net I don’t think is the best for our future.” A bit later in the interview, Merzlikins had this to add: “But like I said, this is business and I don’t think you can keep both. Well, it’s great for the organization, but I don’t think that he (Korpisalo) is going to be happy or I’m going to be happy. . . . I want my net because I know if I’m going to have my net, I’m going to get dangerous.”
His full comments are here:
So, both goaltenders want to be the undisputed starter. Korpisalo wants to get lots of starts in a row so he can get in “the groove.” Merzlikins wants to have the net so he can “get dangerous.” In a perfect world (for the Blue Jackets), Korpisalo could get in the groove with 41 of 82 starts in 2021-22, and Merzlikins could get dangerous with the other 41 starts. But it doesn’t sound like that’s what either has in mind. Another full season of splitting time in the net, the last on each of their contracts, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. And that certainly is not a long-term solution – unless one of them becomes the undisputed starter in Columbus and the other is traded, one or both could walk away as UFAs in the summer of 2022. And that certainly is not in the cards.
No, the Blue Jackets Goalie Trade Doesn’t Have to Happen This Summer
Among journalists covering the Blue Jackets, I may stand alone when I say, “The goalie trade can wait until after the start of the 2021-22 season.” Some have hinted about it, some have stated it, and the greatly-admired (at least by me) Aaron Portzline of The Athletic even put odds on whether or not the Blue Jackets would start next season with both Korpisalo and Merzlikins:
Close to zero. https://t.co/Gv7qH07lHp— Aaron Portzline (@Aportzline) May 7, 2021
A few weeks ago, my colleague Mark Scheig wrote, “I expect one of Korpisalo or Merzlikins to be traded by the team this offseason.” Jeff Svoboda, writing for BlueJackets.com: “With each set to become unrestricted free agents after the upcoming season, now is the time it would make sense for the Blue Jackets to make their choice and explore a trade for the other.”
When asked why a trade must be made in this offseason, the response is almost always something along the lines of “They will both be UFAs next summer, and the organization can’t let them walk for nothing.” If that was a legitimate reason for a trade, wouldn’t the Blue Jackets then need to look at extending or trading every player scheduled to reach the end of his contract in 2022? Of course not! Come July 1, they can begin negotiations with players on expiring contracts, but they aren’t required to do so. (It was generally accepted that Columbus would immediately prepare a contract extension a year early for cornerstone defenseman Jones, but he has apparently made it clear that he has no intention of staying with the Blue Jackets.)
There are, in fact, a number of reasons why it would behoove the club to consider waiting until after the start of 2021-22 to trade either Merzlikins or Korpisalo:
The Goalie Market Is Flooded
According to Spotrac.com, there are over 40 UFA goalies on the market this summer (although some may re-sign with their current teams). Why would a team trade for a goalie when they can sign one without surrendering any assets at all? Logic says a trade makes sense if the goalie for whom you’re trading is better than any available UFA. Unfortunately for the Blue Jackets, the UFAs include several with much better 2020-21 stats than either Korpisalo or Merzlikins. Let’s start with goals against average (GAA). Nine UFA goalies who played at least a dozen games last season have lower GAAs than Merzlikins (2.77,) and 17 have lower GAAs than Korpisalo (3.30). Save percentage (SV%)? Six UFAs who played at least 12 games have higher SV% than Merzlikins (.916), and 16 beat Korpisalo’s .894.
Some of the UFA goalies are nearing (or at) the end of their careers, but several are in the same age bracket as the Blue Jackets’ tandem. Chris Driedger (Florida Panthers, 23 games, 2.07 GAA, .927 SV%) is 27 years old. Petr Mrazek (Carolina Hurricanes, 12 games, 2.06 GGA, .923 SV%) is 29. Philipp Grubauer (Colorado Avalanche, 50 games, 1.95 GAA, .922 SV%) is also 29. Linus Ullmark (Buffalo Sabres, 20 games, 2.63 GAA, .917 SV%) is 28, as is Laurent Brossoit (Winnipeg Jets, 14 games, 2.42 GAA, .918 SV%).
Another possible reason to trade for a goalie rather than signing a UFA is contract-related. Korpisalo is locked in for one more year at $2.8 million; Merzlikins has another year at $4 million. The UFAs mentioned above are likely to command higher salaries with longer term. However, if either of the Columbus tandem is traded and puts up sterling numbers, he’ll command a big raise next summer. Teams looking for a one-year, budget-friendly solution have a number of older UFAs from whom to choose, including 39-year-old Mike Smith (Edmonton Oilers, 32 games, 2.31 GAA, .923 SV%), who earned $1.5 million last season.
Last Season Lowered Their Trade Value
Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins had statistically worse seasons in 2020-21 compared to the previous campaign. Korpisalo saw his SV% drop from .911 to .894 and his GAA average jump from 2.60 to 3.30. And let’s not overlook his sterling performance in the 2019-20 postseason, when he recorded a .941 SV% and a 1.90 GAA in nine games.
Merzlikins had a year-over-year SV% decline from .923 to .916 and a GAA increase from 2.35 to 2.77. He did, however, finish the season strong after Korpisalo suffered a season-ending injury. In his last four games, he had a pair of wins – including a shutout – and a pair of overtime losses, with a GAA of 2.00 and a SV% of .944. (Perhaps that’s what he means when he says he can get “dangerous” when he knows the net is his.)
In their exit interviews, both goalies admitted to having poor performances. Korpisalo: “I’m disappointed in my season.” Merzlikins: “I’m not happy maybe about my numbers what I have because I’m always critical of myself” and ”I’m pretty hard on myself and I don’t like the numbers.”
Starting the Season in Columbus Could Increase Trade Value
Keeping the goalie tandem intact to start the 2021-22 season presents the opportunity for each to bounce back from subpar seasons. Solid performances and a return to their pre-2020-21 stats would certainly increase their trade value. Of course, the club could also start the season with one goalie getting the majority of the starts, showcasing that player for a trade. Remember, too, that Korpisalo ended the season on the injured list. Holding onto the pair would also provide an opportunity to prove that he’s healthy and ready to provide consistent, steady play.
The Argument Against Waiting
There is some risk involved in not trading one of the goalies during the offseason. I can’t overlook the injury factor. Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins have spent chunks of the past two seasons on the injured list. Keeping them both into next season risks actually lowering the trade value of one through injury. But, on the other hand, if the Blue Jackets do start 2021-22 with both goalies, an injury to one would be an opportunity for the other, and the team likely wouldn’t lose steam as it might with an inexperienced backup taking the net for a long stretch. Matiss Kivlenieks, assuming he isn’t lost in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, would likely be the backup when either Korpisalo or Merzlikins is traded (or injured). He has a total of eight games of NHL experience, with a SV% of .899 and a GAA of 3.09.
In addition to injuries, there is no guarantee that the Blue Jackets will start the season strongly enough to “showcase” goaltending. There will be a new coach, and the team will likely still be learning that coach’s system. The expected loss through trade of stud defenseman Jones won’t help the goalies put up sterling stats. Granted, there will be a preseason training camp this year, and players who finally started to hit their strides toward the end of last season should continue to improve as Blue Jackets. But there is no guarantee that the team will perform at a level that allows the goalies to put up great numbers.
The Final Call
Whether a goalie is traded prior to the start of next season is a decision for the Blue Jackets’ brain trust, including general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen and recently re-hired president of hockey operations John Davidson. They have a lot on their plates right now, including hiring a new coach, preparing for the entry draft and the expansion draft, working out some deal involving Jones, negotiating a new contract (or trade) for potential super scorer Patrik Laine, as well as new contracts (or not) for pending free agents that include Alexandre Texier, Zac Dalpe, Andrew Peeke, and possibly Michael Del Zotto and/or Mikko Lehtonen. With all of that going on, holding off on finding a deal for one or the other of their goaltending tandem might also make sense from a simple overload-avoidance point of view.