Let me give you a couple of names to think about.
Joonas Korpisalo. Elvis Merzlikins. Matiss Kivlenieks. If you’re a Columbus Blue Jackets or a die-hard hockey fan, you know who these players are. If not, you’re now seeing three reasons why the Blue Jackets are on a roll.
Imagine that I walk up to you on the street and say these three last names to you. Could you spell them? Korpi what? Merz-like-ins? Mats? Kiv-what-icks? Yeah if you’re just seeing these names for the first time, you’re probably wondering if these are real hockey players.
Not only are they real hockey players, they’re real good hockey players, so good in fact that they are a major reason the Blue Jackets are a playoff team as of this writing.
You are looking at the current top-three goalies in the Blue Jackets’ organization. One is an All-Star although he is currently injured (Korpisalo). One was just announced as Second Star of the Week in the NHL and is taking the league and the city of Columbus by storm with his electric personality and goaltending (Merzlikins). And one just won his NHL debut at Madison Square Garden in a very important Metropolitan Division game (Kivlenieks).
In all three cases, what is being accomplished is considered a major surprise as compared to what was expected at the beginning of the season. There were many questions and few answers. Most of the focus was on the one who left for $70 million.
Bobrovsky Gone, Questions to Answer
Sergei Bobrovsky was Mr. Everything for the Blue Jackets in his tenure there. When he was rolling, so was the team. He won two Vezinas, including one when the Blue Jackets didn’t make the playoffs.
But in his mind, his time was up. He wanted to move on. It was the end of a glorious era in one sense. When he exercised his right to unrestricted free agency, it left a huge hole in net. Someone had to fill it. But who?
Recall the questions that faced the Blue Jackets at that time. Could Korpisalo be a number-one goalie? Could Merzlikins adjust to the North American game without playing a single minute in the AHL? Could Kivlenieks win the number-one job in the AHL after an up-and-down 2018-19?
While GM Jarmo Kekalainen acknowledged there were questions, he defiantly in the face of doubters said he was confident in what he had. He didn’t go out and get a backup despite most everyone thinking he would. So the Blue Jackets would start the season with someone who’s never been a number one and someone who’s never played a minute in North America.
It didn’t start well at all.
Korpisalo stumbled out of the gate. His attitude and emotions got the best of him on multiple occasions when he slammed his stick in frustration in both Philadelphia and Colorado. When it happened the second time, coach John Tortorella stepped in and benched Korpisalo. Merzlikins got his chance to make his statement.
Unfortunately for Elvis, his season started out like a bad nightmare. He got shelled 7-2 in Pittsburgh in the second game of the season. Then he started to show improvement but couldn’t record a win in eight tries, going 0-4-4. As the goalies struggled, so did the Blue Jackets.
When the dust settled early, the Blue Jackets found themselves 11 points out of the playoffs and struggling to find answers. Doubters were beginning to believe they were right about their predictions.
Then it all turned around in a flash.
The Turning Point
Merzlikins was pulled in Ottawa after a shaky first period. Korpisalo came in and steadied the ship. Although the Blue Jackets eventually lost in overtime, that was an important point for the team. Korpisalo showed he was capable of being a number one. It was his chance to shine.
Korpisalo did just that. He went 5-0-1 in his next six starts including wins over the Capitals and Islanders. Then in game seven, he suffered a knee injury during the shootout. His play earned him his first trip to the All-Star Game. But now he was out 4-6 weeks.
Was the season over? What was going to happen now? Enter Elvis.
Merzlikins finally got his chance to be the number one without competition. Could he put his nightmare start behind him and keep the good times rolling? Starting on New Year’s Eve against the $70 million man, he did just that.
The Blue Jackets won 4-1 over the Florida Panthers on Dec 31. Since taking over for Korpisalo, Merzlikins is 8-2 and the Blue Jackets now own a playoff spot. What an incredible turnaround for the Latvian netminder.
But even he needs rest. Enter Kivlenieks. It was thought that Merzlikins would play until the All-Star Break given the competition and the heat of the playoff race. But after a 41-save shutout on Jan 18 against the New Jersey Devils, Merzlikins was exhausted. Kivlenieks got the call for his NHL debut. It was at Madison Square Garden. No way he could step in and keep it going against the hot Rangers.
So what does Kivlenieks do? He defeats the Rangers and Igor Shesterkin 2-1. So all three goaltenders have had some hand in this incredible stretch. The Blue Jackets lost their franchise goaltender and how have a trio making less than $3 million putting up insanely good numbers. They are truly stealing the show, but yet you still have trouble spelling their names.
You could play this season out hundreds of times in simulation. You might get this result just a couple of times in those hundred. It’s truly remarkable what these goalies are doing as a whole. Is Korpisalo a number one? He’s an All-Star. Can Merzlikins adjust to new surroundings? He’s the talk of the NHL.
The Future is Bright as a Result
When you have young, solid goaltending, you have a bright future. These three in net give the Blue Jackets a bright future. And yet, there’s more coming even later down the line. And one of them might have the highest upside of all.
Here’s two more names for you. Veini Vehvilainen. Danill Tarasov. Wait I thought we were done with the spelling test. Nope. We’re just getting started. Vehvilainen is tearing the AHL up with his early numbers and Tarasov is highly regarded out of Russia and putting up great numbers.
So the Blue Jackets have five strong goalies in the organization who could make a dramatic impact now and in the future. That doesn’t include North Dakota’s Peter Thome. This is a clear strength of the team.
Thanks to excellent drafting and development, the Blue Jackets could afford to lose an elite goalie and not miss a step. Look at how the Blue Jackets acquired their top-five goalies.
- Korpisalo: Drafted 62nd overall in 2012.
- Merzlikins: Drafted 76th overall in 2014.
- Kivlenieks: Signed as undrafted free agent in 2017.
- Vehvilainen: Drafted 173rd overall in 2018.
- Tarasov: Drafted 86th overall in 2017.
Notice the European influence. Notice how late these goalies were drafted. This is a sign of a strong amateur scouting staff. Had they not hit on these picks, we could have a vastly different narrative about Bobrovsky leaving. Instead, it’s a huge blessing in that these goalies are getting their chance while not having to pay someone $10 million per season.
With the extra cap space, the Blue Jackets can improve on other areas of the team when the chance presents itself. This alone makes them extra dangerous during the offseason. They have options other teams don’t have. Never underestimate the power of cap space.
Now that you know about these goalies, can you spell their names yet? It might take you a few tries to get them right. But there’s no questioning what they’re doing right at this point. Their play has the Blue Jackets in position to fight for a coveted playoff spot. They have stolen the show this season and given Blue Jackets’ fans reason for much excitement now and in the future.
This show is just beginning.
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 2022-23 season will mark nine seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager. Please take note of the updated Twitter handle: @mark_scheig.