With just 12 days remaining until the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline, the Columbus Blue Jackets are facing a major dilemma. What was once thought of as an easy decision suddenly is anything but. The team now has to decide how to handle the future of their goaltending.
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Their best goaltender this season Joonas Korpisalo is a pending UFA. Elvis Merzlikins is under contract for four more seasons after this one at $5.4 million per season. Daniil Tarasov is close to ready for a more full-time NHL role at a very reasonable $1.05 million cap hit for the next two seasons.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen will have to make a hard decision by Mar 3. Korpisalo is the obvious trade deadline target. However his recent play is suggesting the Blue Jackets could be parting with the best goalie of the three.
How did we get here? Let’s set the scene.
Korpisalo’s Road to Redemption
The story of Korpisalo is the stuff of fairy tales. After enduring a brutal season in 2021-22 that saw him undergo hip surgery, the Blue Jackets signed him to a one-year deal. The hope was that 2022-23 would be a bounce-back season for him.
That also bought the Blue Jackets time to evaluate the state of their goaltending. They invested five years in Merzlikins. They inked Tarasov to a three-year deal. Korpisalo was familiar to them and would step in when there was injury or if Merzlikins was struggling.
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Turns out both injury and bad play have been a factor this season. Merzlikins by the numbers has statistically been one of the worst goalies in the NHL in 2022-23. He’s been better of late but his numbers are still bad as a whole.
As a result, Korpisalo has started the most games for the Blue Jackets in 2022-23. In 24 starts, he is now 10-10-3 with a 3.14 goals-against average. Here is the key number for him though. His save percentage for the season is up to .912. That’s top-20 in the NHL for goalies with a minimum of 17 starts.
Korpisalo’s recent starts have really stood out. He has stopped 65 of 67 in his last two starts against the Jets and Stars, two of the best teams in the Western Conference. That’s a .970 save percentage.
Korpisalo is playing at a level similar to the season in which he was an All-Star. It’s especially notable since he’s playing behind an inexperienced defense on the Blue Jackets. Not only has he been their best goalie of late, he’s been their best player of late.
There in lies the problem for the Blue Jackets. While conventional wisdom says Korpisalo will be traded by the deadline, the team needs to consider all possibilities. What if Korpisalo is the best goalie of the three? Wouldn’t they want to keep him for themselves?
What options do the Blue Jackets have? Let’s explore what they could be thinking.
The Traditional Route
All signs seem to point to Korpisalo being dealt to a contender. He’s put himself in position to be a valuable depth add to someone pursuing a Stanley Cup this season. In case of injury, he could step in and the team wouldn’t miss a step.
The Blue Jackets will certainly get calls on Korpisalo now that he’s shown he’s over his injury and playing very well. The ultimate question to consider is what can the Blue Jackets get back at this stage in any potential trade?
First, they’d have to decide that moving forward with Merzlikins and Tarasov is the route they choose. Of the options we are presenting, that is the most likely outcome just based on contract status.
Let’s assume they choose this option. Looking at some recent goalie trades will give us some idea of what to expect for fair market value.
The Washington Capitals traded Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils for both a second and third rounder in the 2022 NHL Draft. The St. Louis Blues traded Ville Husso to the Detroit Red Wings for a third rounder in the 2022 NHL Draft. The New York Rangers traded Alexandar Georgiev to the Colorado Avalanche for three picks, a third and fifth in 2022 and a third in 2023. That sets the bar for the price of a starting goalie.
Korpisalo would likely be depth for a contender. That would indicate the price come in lower than the above. The best comparable in recent memory happened at the last trade deadline.
The Arizona Coyotes traded Scott Wedgewood to the Dallas Stars for a conditional fourth rounder in 2023. The condition on that trade was if the Stars made the playoffs, the pick became a third rounder instead. Wedgewood was acquired to be Jake Oettinger’s backup.
That kind of trade involving Korpisalo would be one possibility. The other would be acquiring a mid-level prospect instead of a draft pick. There in lies the dilemma. Korpisalo has shown he can play at a high level. Would this be enough of a return for the Blue Jackets to make this deal? Or would they get more value keeping him and re-signing him?
Let’s say the Blue Jackets decide they want Korpisalo back with them. How would that work? That would not be an easy thing to accomodate.
The trade value on Merzlikins is below the ground. While he’s played better in recent starts, he has a 4.28 goals-against average and a save percentage of .873. Who is trading for him with four years left on his deal at over $5 million?
The Blue Jackets decided to pay Merzlikins that contract. They have to hope he turns things around in the coming seasons.
Perhaps a team sees that Merzlikins can still be good. They could present a low-ball offer to the Blue Jackets. Thinking through the goalie situations out there, not many teams would go down that road. Anaheim? Buffalo? I’m not sure why they’d do that at this point.
The other important point is that Tarasov will need waivers starting in 2023-24. He can’t be freely sent to the AHL like he can be now. That all but locks up his spot on the Blue Jackets next season. If they keep Korpisalo, they’d have to try to find a way to trade Merzlikins at his lowest point. The chances of that are next to none.
Here’s an option that has rarely been talked about. Would the Blue Jackets ever think to trade Tarasov? In this scenario, they’d have both Korpisalo (assuming a new deal) and Merzlikins back. I’m not sure this works either.
Both Korpisalo and Merzlikins consider themselves to be number-one goalies. Would they want to continue sharing the crease as 1A and 1B? Then why would the Blue Jackets give up a goalie in Tarasov that might have the highest upside of the three.
This scenario only makes sense if the return in a trade matches or exceeds the perceived value Tarasov would bring. Could they address a big organizational need in this manner?
Considering what the Blue Jackets need overall, this only makes sense if a legitimate young center comes back in a deal. They have young defense coming soon. They have wingers. But if a team in need of a goalie has a young center they could offer, then there could be something there.
I’d still put the overall odds of this scenario playing out at next to none. The Blue Jackets value Tarasov and signed him to a deal indicative of that.
So What Will They Do?
Since the odds of trading Merzlikins and Tarasov are very low, it does continue to point to Korpisalo being dealt by Mar 3. Keeping all three again doesn’t make sense because Tarasov will need waivers.
The Blue Jackets likely have to make the hard decision of trading their best current goalie given the overall circumstances. But it is not settled yet. Remember what happened last season when injuries hit?
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Overall, that is the decision. What is the best path forward for the Blue Jackets? Trading Korpisalo is what’s expected and the return wouldn’t be anything overwhelming. Trading Merzlikins is a tough ask unless you accept something way below market value. Trading Tarasov is a tough ask unless you get a comparable prospect back that addresses a major need.
Like it or not, we could be seeing the last of Korpisalo in Columbus. That would be tough on everyone involved.
But that’s the business side of the NHL for you. It doesn’t care about your feelings and emotions.