Blue Jackets Have a Goaltending Dilemma

The Columbus Blue Jackets did just about everything right on Satruday night at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg. They scored three power-play goals for the first time since March 2018. They controlled much of the game otherwise. Despite the score being 3-3 late in the third, they were at least on their way to a road point.

And then in the span of about 10 seconds, the outcome of the game completely flipped the other way.

Andrew Copp intercepted an Elvis Merzlikins clearing attempt and then shot the puck towards the net. The puck deflects off defenseman David Savard and goes in past Merzlikins to give the Jets the lead for good. There was just 1:54 left on the clock.

A late Blue Jackets’ push with the goaltender pulled did not connect. The Jets won the game 4-3 and handed the Blue Jackets a gut punch of a loss.

The clearing attempt by Merzlikins was a killer. He had room to the outside to send the puck. Instead, in riverboat gambler style, he tried going up the middle only to have the puck hit Andrew Copp.

This is not a case of a goaltender trying to learn the nuances of the NHL. This was a mental lapse at a key time in the game. Considering where the Blue Jackets are in the standings, they cannot afford to throw points away when the opportunity is there. Unfortunately for them, this play cost the Blue Jackets one point for sure and maybe two had they found a way to win in overtime.

Now the question we must consider here is what’s next for the goaltending situation. It’s a tricky spot for the team given all the dynamics in play.

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins made a critical mistake at the end of the game Saturday night. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

What’s Next?

Let’s set the scene for you. Joonas Koprisalo is the number one still. He’s gotten better and has accounted for all of the Blue Jackets’ wins on the season. You can expect him to return to the crease Monday night against Ottawa. The issue here that could be developing is his workload.

Remember this is Korpisalo’s first season as a number-one goalie. He hasn’t had to worry about crazy workloads before. But at his current pace, he’s started 17 of the team’s first 22 games. That’s 63-64 starts if this keeps up the whole season. He’s never played more than 31 games in a season in his NHL career. You have to wonder if he could handle 60+ starts. Maybe he can but that is a lot to ask for a first-time number one. You need someone who can go in on occasion and collect wins. That’s where this dilemma continues.

The loss Saturday night puts Merzlikins’ record at 0-2-3 with a 3.54 GAA and .890 save percentage. If you count his one start at AHL Cleveland, Merzlikins has not won a regular season game since coming to North America. You have to wonder about trust especially when you’re dealing with John Tortorella.

That play cannot happen. No good comes from a clearing attempt up the middle. Tortorella started his postgame press conference by telling reporters he won’t take any questions about Merzlikins or he’ll walk off. He said nothing, but it also says everything about what he thinks of that play. It cost them the game. It was a bad play.

When will we see Merzlikins again? Given the critical juncture of the season the Blue Jackets are in, I’m not sure. The schedule does have some back-to backs coming up so you’d think he’d got a shot. But it isn’t that easy.

The Blue Jackets next four games are Ottawa, Philadelphia and then back-to-back against Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. The last three of those are three games in four nights against division rivals.

Does Tortorella have enough trust to throw Merzlikins into any of those three games? That’s a fascinating question. We’ll see how they go about this. But they cannot be happy with the way Saturday ended.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella has a big decision to make at a critical juncture in their season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Reality of the Situation

Here’s the reality. Merzlikins is trying to adjust on the fly. But he needs to play games. With Korpisalo the clear number one, how does he get consistent games? There’s really not an easy answer to this one.

What could happen here? The team could choose to continue down the path they’ve started which is allow Korpisalo to play a lot and then find games here and there to get Merzlikins into. That could happen, but that doesn’t give Merzlikins the game action he needs.

They could choose to send Merzlikins to Cleveland again to get some game action. But with the upcoming schedule with back-to-backs, I’m not sure how you can do that either. What if Korpisalo gets injured? In a situation where you send Elvis down, Matiss Kivlenieks would come up. Are the Blue Jackets comfortable with having Kivlenieks go in if something were to happen?

You also have to wonder how GM Jarmo Kekalainen is viewing this situation. Will he remain patient and let things work their course or will he try to find a capable backup goalie to spell Korpisalo? This would allow Merzlikins an extended stay in Cleveland to play and play a lot.

The Blue Jackets already have a thin margin for error as it is. Throwing away points is the last thing they need. That’s what makes this goaltending situation a big dilemma for the team.

As of Sunday morning, the Blue Jackets occupy a spot in the bottom-five of the league standings. They need wins and points and lots of them if they want to climb back into this race. Saturday night was a gut punch because points were thrown away and it shines the spotlight on the overall goaltending situation.

What happens next? Kekalainen, Tortorella and the Blue Jackets have an important decision to make that will shape how the rest of this season will go. At least for now, get ready to see a heavy Korpisalo workload.