Friday brought the news of longtime Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo re-signing with the club for another year on a $1.3 million cap hit. This after a historically bad season for the Finn, in which re-signing didn’t seem guaranteed. Management for the team cited his injury as to why he struggled so mightily this year.
“Joonas has been a consummate pro during his Blue Jackets career and just two years ago was coming of a season in which he was selected to play in the All-Star Game and had a record-setting performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 2021-22 season was derailed by injury, but we fully believe he will return to form, and are happy that he will continue to be a part of our team.”Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen on Korpisalo re-signing.
Now with Korpisalo returning, the Blue Jackets’ goaltending situation is, as Maxine Nightingale says, right back where it started from.
How the Blue Jackets & Korpisalo Got Here
The Blue Jackets goalie situation hasn’t really been set in stone since the departure of two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in 2019. The team presumably handed the reigns to Korpisalo, who had backed Bobrovsky for several seasons prior and was considered the goalie of the future. For the 2019-20 season, it looked like it was his role to lose.
However, the arrival of Latvian wunderkind Elvis Merzlikins changed things. It became a true two-horse race. Korpisalo’s experience earned him the benefit of the doubt early on, and he got off to a strong start. So strong it earned him the honour of being named to the 2020 All-Star game. Then the injury bug bit, forcing him to miss that appearance and 24 regular-season games.
That injury opened the door for Merzlikins to level the playing field. The Latvian shined in Korpisalo’s absence, so brightly that he was given the net heading into those playoffs, which took place in the bubble. However, after a couple of tough starts, the net went back to Korpisalo.
Once back in the crease, Korpisalo played the best hockey of his career. He posted a .941 save percentage (SV%) and a 1.90 goals-against average (GAA) en route to the Blue Jackets’ second playoff round win in franchise history. He stood on his head in the next series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the series which had the marathon five-overtime game, in which Korpisalo shined in an 85 save performance. They were eliminated by the Lightning, who went on to win the Stanley Cup, but there’s no shame in that.
In 2020-21, things remained as the year before: Korpisalo getting more starts, Merzlikins performing a little better — a stalemate once again. But things changed drastically before this past season with the Merzlikins contract extension. Merzlikins signed for five years at $5.4 million annually, which is deep into ‘starting goalie salary’ at the NHL level. That move put the eggs in Merzlikins’ basket and the writing on the wall for Korpisalo, whose name immediately went to the trade block.
However, Korpisalo struggled through the year. Merzlikins topped him in starts and overall performance, firmly losing any chance at the starting goalie role but also having such an abysmal season that he lost any interest from any team that may have looked to buy a goalie at the trade deadline. After the deadline, it was revealed that he was suffering from a hip injury and that he’d be undergoing hip surgery to correct the issue. He’s since had the surgery, and that brings us to now when he is in the process of recovering.
Korpisalo Does Have Some Upside
Korpisalo showed in the 2019-20 season and especially in those playoffs that he could be a valuable NHL goalie. However, since then, his ceiling has gone from being a top-level starting goalie to being a solid backup.
His overall performance stats have been steadily decreasing since that 2019-20 season, culminating in an all-time low this year, with a .877 SV% and 4.15 GAA. Both of those numbers ranked last in goalies who had played more than 20 games by a significant margin. Further, his SV% was tied for the worst in the last decade, while his GAA was the second worst.
Many were skeptical he would get another seat at the table after performing so poorly this season, but clearly, the Blue Jackets’ brass thinks he’s still got some gas left in the tank. They believe part of his performance issues were due to his hip injuries, for which he’s now had surgery and should be mended by the start of next season. A bounceback could be in the making.
Things in his corner include being only two years away from an All-Star nomination, by all accounts being a positive piece in the locker room who’s liked by the fanbase, and having a history of being able to perform in big situations.
Against him, at 28, he is now past where many players peak at the NHL level. The younger Daniil Tarasov knocking at the door for taking over a full-time NHL roster spot doesn’t bode well for Korpisalo’s long-term future with the Blue Jackets.
In a best-case scenario, Korpisalo bounces back to a level where he is an above-average backup goalie that can be shipped off somewhere at the deadline for a decent return. At this cap hit and term, there is slim to no risk. But if he bounces back, he could be a solid piece to the Jackets’ puzzle in the short term.
This Could Be Korpisalo’s Last Chance
The only one-year extension does not inspire confidence in the fate of the Finn. This contract sees his cap hit drop by more than half of last season’s $2.8 million and his salary by more — which was at $3.4 million. At his age, those numbers should still be getting higher, not lower. Things are not trending in the right direction for Korpisalo. This season will be pivotal in determining if his career continues not only in Columbus but in North America.
Writer covering the Columbus Blue Jackets for THW since August 2021.
Co-host of the Blue Jackets’ focused “Union Junction Podcast” on The Hockey Writers’ podcast network.
Also, a radio personality and reporter currently based on Vancouver Island.