Blue Jackets’ Merzlikins Must Start Living Up to His Contract

The Columbus Blue Jackets have found their footing at the start of the 2022-23 season. Coming off an impressive 5-1 win on Sunday against the New York Rangers, the Blue Jackets turned in their most complete performance of the young season.

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A big reason for their success Sunday was the performance of goaltender Daniil Tarasov. He stopped 30 of 31 shots to help him earn his first NHL win. If the Blue Jackets want to build off of that performance, they will need to continue to get solid goaltending from whoever starts in a particular game.

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A question that seems to be coming up of late is who deserves to start games in the near term? Tarasov looked calm in New York and didn’t seem to let the moment bother him. His confidence fed down to his teammates. Is there a scenario where they would consider riding the hot hand? If recent performance is any indicator, there could be a decision to make over this next stretch of games.

Setting the Scene

With seven games in the books, let’s look at where both goalies stand with their record and early stats. An immediate theme pops out.

Merzlikins by NHL experience and by contract is the Blue Jackets’ number-one starting goalie. However his early numbers show that he’s off to a terrible start, one that cannot be sustained over the season if the team hopes to make a serious push for the playoffs.

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While the overall situation is not entirely his fault due to the defense in front of him, he has to start playing up to his contract. He’s better than what he’s shown so far. The question is can he turn things around in his own game?

Merzlikins (and his defense) Must Be Better

The situation is a two-way street. The defense’s job is to make the goaltender’s job easier. The goaltender’s job is to stop the puck. In re-watching the tape on Merzlikins’ four games, one thing is apparent. While he has shown small pockets of good play, his overall performance is way below what’s expected. In fact it’s among the worst in the league in the early stages.

The above chart shows the Blue Jackets were ranked 31st in goals saved above expected. In other words, they allowed 7.3 goals more than what would be expected given the quality of shots taken. This was before Sunday’s win in New York and a representation of the team as a whole.

Looking at Merzlikins individually illustrates why the tandem has been among the league’s worst. According to Nat Stat Trick at 5-on-5 this season, Merzlikins has allowed 15 goals on 101 shots against, a save percentage of just .851. Based on quality of shots faced, his expected goals against comes in at 8.70 in the four games. Allowing almost double what’s expected is obviously not a good sign. This is why it is fair to pin some of the blame on Merzlikins for his performance.

Within the games, Merzlikins has shown some bright spots with big saves at key moments and being able to secure two wins in his four starts. A look at the goals he’s allowed and then events after puts some needed perspective into this.

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Against the Canucks, Bo Horvat finished a 2-on-1 rush after receiving a perfect pass from Elias Pettersson. Once the pass got over, very few goalies were stopping that one. Then Pettersson made a good read on the 2-0 goal and beat Merzlikins to the spot. The 3-3 goal by Horvat was a point shot that hit his shin pads and went in. Otherwise Merzlikins stopped the other 32 shots faced and was especially good from the second period on stopping 23/24 shots. This was his best performance so far this season.

Against the Predators, Tanner Jeannot scored the 1-0 goal with persistence and eventually outworking Merzlikins in front of the net on a rebound. Then on Ryan Johansen’s 2-0 goal, Merzlikins left a big rebound. There was also no one around Johansen to defend him after the rebound was allowed. On Yakov Trenin’s 3-1 goal, this is where Merzlikins must be better. He cannot allow this goal to happen. Although there was traffic in front, this is a shot that must be stopped given where Trenin was on the ice.

Against the Blues, Merzlikins was in a 2-2 game in the third period before a costly turnover ultimately decided the game. Zach Werenski lost the puck at center. A 4-on-2 break for the Blues turned into a goal that one could argue Merzlikins should have had. The Blues went on to win 5-2.

Against the Penguins, it was 3-3 in the third when Sidney Crosby was inexplicably left wide open in the right circle. Merzlikins had no chance on the shot. The Blue Jackets had control of the puck. However Erik Gudbranson couldn’t clear while four Blue Jackets were on the right side of the ice leaving Crosby wide open.

It has been a mixed bag for Merzlikins, both goals he should have stopped and goals he had no chance on. Then consider he missed the start of the season due to illness and hadn’t had many practices in before making his season debut in St. Louis.

Merzlikins Must Find Rhythm

Allowing 17 goals in his first four starts is simply not good enough all things considered. While it is not all his fault, there’s no question he shoulders some of the blame. He must starting playing up to his contract as their number-one goalie.

Merzlikins will be making $5.4 million for the next five seasons including this one. He showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season. Since then though, the numbers have dropped over his last three seasons. While this is not a goalie controversy, the door is open for Brad Larsen to play the hot hand should it come to that.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins must start playing up to his contract. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In order for the Blue Jackets to find success, Merzlikins has to play better. He needs to be able to make a big save when there’s a defensive breakdown. He needs to be able to exude confidence to his teammates in big moments. At least so far this season, when the wheels have come off for him, it hasn’t been pretty to watch.

Again it is early. Merzlikins and his teammates have time to smooth the rough edges out. But being one of the worst goaltending tandems early in the season is not a good sign. He must elevate his play.

Just having the personality is no longer good enough for Merzlikins. Expectations are higher now. He has the contract. Now it’s time for him to play up to it.

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