What was once the biggest question for the Columbus Blue Jackets is suddenly now one of its biggest strengths.
On Thursday, the Blue Jackets agreed to terms with goaltender Elvis Merzlikins on a two-year contract extension that will keep him in Columbus through the 2021-22 season. It’s the same term that Joonas Korpisalo recently agreed to. So for the next two seasons barring a trade, the goaltending situation seems set.
This situation went from uncertain to luxurious in just one season. The road to luxurious was not an easy one for the Blue Jackets to get to.
A Quick Recap
The team started the 2019-20 season with two inexperienced goaltenders in the sense that neither had been a full-time starter in the NHL before. The season didn’t get off to the start the team hoped for.
At one point, the Blue Jackets sat in the bottom-five of the NHL standings. Merzlikins got a rude welcome to the NHL starting with his NHL debut in Pittsburgh. He then didn’t win a game until Dec 31 against Sergei Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers. That was just after Korpisalo injured his knee four nights before.
Talk about season-defining moments. It went from a goalie never winning an NHL regular-season game to starting at Nationwide Arena on New Year’s Eve night against the guy that left the Blue Jackets after a successful run in net. Merzlikins bested Bobrovsky. Then it was nothing but up from there.
The Blue Jackets went to Boston and won in their next game. Then from there until Feb 8 against Colorado, Merzlikins lost just twice both against the San Jose Sharks. This included an incredible run of five shutouts in eight starts. It’s no wonder the Blue Jackets wanted to lock him in.
Merzlikins Speaks to Media
The feeling was mutual from Merzlikins’ perspective. He spoke to the media on a conference call Thursday to talk about his new deal and much more.
“Obviously it’s an honor to be here again for the next two years,” Merzlikins said of his extension. “I am really happy. I am really excited and I am really happy because I like everything here. I like the city. I really love my teammates and I like the organization, especially the fans. When I came here in the start of the season, I felt like I was already home.”
Merzlikins went on to give credit to the fans because in his words, “they didn’t abandon me.” That’s why he also said things like Columbus is the “perfect city” and they have the “perfect people” for me. If he had a bad game, the fans stayed by his side. Even when he couldn’t get a game puck to his mother for winning an NHL game right away, it was just a matter of time. Once the first one happened, many more would come. For Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets, it’s the perfect situation.
Where It Goes From Here
Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are now under contract for two more seasons after this one. The question on the minds of many is who is the number one? In the words of general manager Jarmo Kekalainen speaking on that conference call Thursday, “It’s going to be up to the head coach.”
Yes John Tortorella will ultimately have the final say in who starts when. Clearly both have aspirations of being a number-one goalie. Both have proven in small spurts that they can play in that role. But who gets the first crack and how it transpires from there will be decided by Tortorella.
The one thing you will never be able to question is the relationship Merzlikins and Korpisalo have. They are great friends. Merzlikins even went as far as saying that they along with goalie coach Manny Legace are “kind of a little goalie family.”
Their friendship goes back to development camp in 2014. Merzlikins said he followed Korpisalo and his games throughout. But now they are competing against each other for playing time. He understands the dynamic of things but at the end of the day, it’s about the team.
“I understand the business,” Merzlikins said. There is one net. There is one goalie who is going to play. But in the end of the day, we are just trying to (do) our job better to help the team win games so the organization is happy and the team is happy. That is our main job to do.”
Why This is a Luxury
The Blue Jackets now have a luxurious situation in goal. They have two guys that go out on any given night and enjoy success. Talk about giving a boost to a team. They will have confidence that they can get the job done every night. It doesn’t matter who is in net. Their goal is to win when their name is called. Both Merzlikins and Korpisalo have that understanding. They’ll be there for each other no matter how this plays out.
As for how they’ll split starts is anyone’s guess. But Kekalainen did admit that part of the thinking was the importance of having two quality guys on hand. The days of goalies having 60+ starts is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Whether it’s 52/30 or some other variation, the Blue Jackets can now throw a number-one starter at you for all 82 games. Kekalainen mentioned Boston’s goaltending with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak when talking about this. The Bruins are one of the best teams in the NHL thanks to having two quality starters. The Blue Jackets hope to follow a similar blueprint.
The goaltending is set. The Blue Jackets are in a luxurious position with two quality starters. Their defense remains strong with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard and Ryan Murray all anchoring down spots. Don’t look now, but the Blue Jackets seem primed to take the next step in future seasons. If they do take that next step, it will mean the goaltending pushed themselves to the next level.
For Merzlikins, that is his goal. He’s extremely happy to be in Columbus and is ready to show everyone that his recent success will be his norm. It’s a perfect fit for everyone involved.