The Columbus Blue Jackets have kept their goaltending status quo this season with starter Elvis Merzlikins and backup Joonas Korpisalo behind him. Yet, for the second consecutive season, Daniil Tarasov has been more impressive than either of them. Of course, his sample size is smaller, but why not change that?
With Merzlikins being healthy once again, he’ll be handed the net; however, that shouldn’t be the case at this point. As the Los Angeles Kings proved earlier this week, just because a player is being paid doesn’t mean they’re entitled to their role. There are similarities between Cal Petersen and Merzlikins; both had strong performances in 2020-21 and received large extensions in Sept. 2021 as their team’s goaltender of the future. However, both experienced a major decline in performance in 2021-22 and struggled horrendously to start 2022-23. Now, Petersen has been placed on waivers, and Merzlikins is still considered a starting goaltender.
Why Tarasov Deserves a Chance
Tarasov has been spending a lot of time bouncing between Columbus and the American Hockey League’s Cleveland Monsters in the seasons since he arrived in North America. Although he struggled with the Monsters, with the Blue Jackets, he’s outperforming every other goaltender on the roster. However, his performance in 2021-22 could be considered an outlier since he had a fairly small sample size due to an injury on New Years’ Day. Yet, 2022-23 has proven that even in a similar sample size, he’s performing at a much higher level than either Merzlikins or Korpisalo.
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Merzlikins has played the most games this season with nine, for a save percentage (SV%) of .864 and a goals-against average (GAA) of 4.74. Korpisalo has played eight games with a slightly better stat line at a .899 SV% and 3.75 GAA. Meanwhile, Tarasov has played seven games and has drastically outperformed the others with a SV% of .912 and a GAA of 3.17.
Time for Blue Jackets to Take a Risk
There aren’t many concerns about Tarasov on the surface. Of course, management will be a bit worried about handing over the net to a 23-year-old who is still adapting to the North American style of the game. He also has a bit of an injury history, dating back to his draft year. Considering he also suffered a major injury during the 2021-22 season, there will be some doubts about his ability to stay healthy for an entire season since he hasn’t shown he can do that yet.
However, this season is essentially lost already, so it’s time for the Blue Jackets to stop worrying and take action. Head coach Brad Larsen has been afraid to put Kent Johnson in the top six because he’s “too young.” That’s the same reason he’s nervous about putting Tarasov in the net. However, the team needs to send the message that they’re not going to reward complacency, and although it’s not ideal to see a player lose their job due to injury, sometimes it happens. Merzlikins might be beloved, but he can’t remain the starter just because he’s the highest paid. If he’s not going to perform, it’s time to let someone else give it a shot.
At this point, there’s no reason to punish the goaltender who has been performing at the highest level and send him back to the AHL. Understandably, the organization might feel tied down by Merzlikins’s contract and won’t want to admit their mistake by waiving or trading him. At the same time, it makes no sense to hold the organization back unnecessarily by sticking with a player who isn’t bringing enough to the table. Like any business, they must find someone who will.
The Blue Jackets already found someone, but they seem anxious to hand over the reins, even if it seems like the logical thing to do, at least on a trial level. Tarasov hasn’t performed at a high level for long enough to be given the keys to the castle, that’s for sure. But he does deserve an opportunity to prove that he’s ready. The Kings admitted they made almost the exact same mistake and did something about it. The Blue Jackets need to do the same.
William Espy is a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus. He has been writing about hockey since 2016 on various platforms. He currently covers the Columbus Blue Jackets but had a previous stint covering the Calgary Flames.