If there was one thing that is true about the end of the season for the Columbus Blue Jackets, it’s that we were all going to learn something about individuals on this team. Losing brings out real emotion. Thursday night in Tampa Bay, we saw real emotion from goaltender Elvis Merzlikins.
After the Blue Jackets’ 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Merzlikins went to the podium and delivered some of the most honest, real and sincere remarks I’ve heard from a Blue Jacket in a long time. It looked like he was about to cry at times. That’s not a knock on him. That’s a reflection of just how trying times are in Columbus. See for yourself just how real he was.
This was actually refreshing to see. The Blue Jackets have just two wins in their last 17 games. Very little has gone right for them since the weekend disaster in Detroit. You had to figure this was weighing the team down. For Merzlikins to leave it all out there on Thursday shows you everything you need to know about who he is and what he wants to become.
Merzlikins is Battling
The quote from Merzlikins that stood out to me was this one. “We are embarrassing our organization and that is the bad part. We are not doing this on purpose. We are really trying. I don’t know. Seriously. I don’t know. I have no words. I am sorry.”
Merzlikins also went on to say that he can’t sleep at night and it hurts. Being in this position absolutely hurts and it’s a place no player, coach or general manager wants to be a part of.
I recently wrote that this whole experience would be a humbling one for everyone involved. The key would be if they took this hard lesson to heart and what they would do about it so it doesn’t happen again. At least so far, Merzlikins has shown that he is leaving it all on the ice every time he gets the call.
The Blue Jackets were winning Thursday night 1-0 for a good part of the game. Then in a flash, it went turnover, rush, goal. All of a sudden, any momentum the Blue Jackets had was gone Lightning quick (see what I did there?)
From there, the Blue Jackets couldn’t score again. They allowed a third-period goal to Ondrej Palat and an empty-net goal to Blake Coleman. That was your game.
Merzlikins did everything he could to keep his team in the game. He finished the night with 25 saves on 27 shots. Despite the good effort, Merzlikins has just one win in his last 10 decisions. It’s no wonder frustration and emotion boiled over.
Merzlikins is Committed
But it’s what Merzlikins said within that emotion that should be encouraging to Blue Jackets’ fans. He showed that he wants to be there and wants to find a way to turn things around. This kind of emotion has been far too absent for the Blue Jackets especially in this meltdown.
Merzlikins took things upon himself when speaking of the losing. He’s owning the situation and taking responsibility. He’s also embraced Columbus, the Blue Jackets, his teammates and the fans. This is the kind of player you want on your team when the chips are down.
Let me ask you a question. Which players do you want around when times are tough? After Thursday, I would think most people would say Merzlikins and rightfully so. You want players that will go to war for you. He seems primed to do that for the Blue Jackets.
Notably, Merzlikins’ numbers have been ok given his recent 1-9-0 stretch. In that time, he has a 2.96 goals-against average and .910 save percentage. For as bad as the Blue Jackets have been, sporting a .910 is quite impressive. For comparison, Joonas Korpisalo has a goals-against of 4.21 and an .877 save percentage since Mar 22. It shows both the talent and the willingness to fight even in these circumstances for Merzlikins.
The Blue Jackets will have to make a decision on a goaltender at some point. Merzlikins is making a strong case to stay given his play in this environment and his willingness to embrace this team while being real. The Blue Jackets need to find a way to keep Merzlikins in Columbus for the long haul. He’s committed to them. They need to return the favor to him.
Max Domi & Healthy Scratches
After taking two separate 14-minute penalties, it was just a matter of time before Max Domi found himself on the outside looking in on the lineup sheet. He had never been a healthy scratch before until these two games against the Panthers. Tortorella did not want to elaborate on why Domi was scratched, but it was easy to see why. The plays where he racked up the penalty minutes were completely unnecessary and he knows it.
It’s one thing to bring energy and spice to a game. It’s another all together when the things you do is self inflicted. Each instance meant he was unavailable for 14 minutes. That trickle down effect does throughout the lineup. Domi was unavailable to his team when he was needed. Then to boot, when he was done serving his time, he was kept on the bench by Tortorella.
Domi has had a rough first season with the Blue Jackets. He was thought to be a top-six center coming in but has struggled to find consistency despite some pockets of better play of late. But he has to know when to back down if the situation warrants it.
When asked the other day about the scratches, Domi said “it wasn’t fun, that’s for sure.” This has never happened to him before. You can understand the frustration when this decision was made. It makes you wonder what his future holds.
Domi does have one year left on his contract. His trade value is a low as it can be. Plus could you imagine trading him after trading Josh Anderson? Unless something drastically changes, I suspect he’s back with the Blue Jackets in 2021-22. Will there be a different coach behind the bench? There’s a lot of unknowns. Plus the way the season has gone with Covid-19. That could have played a factor in some of his struggles.
Domi can be a good player. It will be up to the Blue Jackets to find a way to get a better roster on the ice so he can fully display the kind of player he can be.
As for the healthy scratches, Domi deserved them. We’ll see if the lesson was learned.
Quick Hits on the Future
This team has a ton of questions this offseason and beyond. I will share with you some of those questions and some quick random thoughts.
- I fully expect Patrik Laine to stay with the Blue Jackets despite many wondering if a trade is coming. The question is how they can get him back to full confidence and the player he can be? The quick answer is get better talent around him. But players like that don’t grow on trees. I’m honestly not sure there is a quick fix if center depth can’t be achieved quickly. Perhaps this opens the door for a trade. But after trading Pierre-Luc Dubois, the team will do everything they can with Laine to find a way to make it work.
- Can they get Seth Jones to sign long-term? That is priority one, two, three, four, five and six. You do whatever it takes to keep him. Here’s what I would do. Eight years, over $80 million. You target him as the next team captain. You get his input on the direction of the team. You do a better job marketing players like him. The eyes of the hockey world will be watching. If the Blue Jackets can’t get a signature, then uh oh. There will be a lot of explaining to do and an awful narrative that stars don’t want to commit to Columbus. At that point, the team better look in the mirror and realize the problem might be themselves.
- There are reports out there that Tortorella might not be back next season with the Blue Jackets. My personal feeling is that he won’t be back. He’s underpaid and could land somewhere for a significant raise. This situation too will dictate how the immediate future goes. A potential next coach will have a huge influence on player decisions. Here’s the bottom line. The Blue Jackets have to get these moves right. If not it could be devastating for years to come.
- As good as it’s been for the Blue Jackets in recent seasons, they have just one playoff series win in Kekalainen’s tenure. Now we’re looking at a reload of which we don’t know how long it will take them to get back. If their standard is winning Stanley Cups, then winning one playoff round is unacceptable. How hot does his seat get as we go? He’s done a lot of good things. But this team is nowhere close to being a contender at this point. He needs to be held accountable just like everyone else. This offseason might be his most important one yet.
- The Blue Jackets need to find a way to protect Eric Robinson in the expansion draft if they can. He hasn’t finished his chances this season. But he’s been impressive getting chances and making an impact with his speed. Put a better team around him and he could flourish. I think the Seattle Kraken would gobble him up if left unprotected.
- Subject to change, I do think Dean Kukan ultimately ends up with the Kraken.
- Where is Andrew Peeke and Liam Foudy? I get other players are being reviewed and some players will benefit from playing in the AHL. But with seven games left, this would be a great time to get experience. Mistakes are secondary right now. It’s a great time to learn at this level so they can be ready for next season and beyond. This one baffles me.
- And finally, Sunday’s game in Tampa will be aired on NBCSN.
I am a fully credentialed writer who covers the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters and Erie Otters as well as the Ontario Hockey League and NHL Draft. The 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.