The Columbus Blue Jackets are about to embark on the 2019-20 NHL season. Three rookies made enough of an impression at training camp and during the preseason to secure a spot on the opening night roster.
Not only did these rookies win a spot, the Blue Jackets expect each them to make an impact right away. Each will play an important role on the team to start out the season.
As we wrap up our season previews, let’s meet the three new rookies that make their Blue Jackets’ debut now or soon. They are forward Emil Bemstrom, forward Jacob Lilja and goaltender Elvis Merzlikins.
The start of the 2017 NHL Draft looked pretty bleak from a Blue Jackets’ standpoint. They traded their first-round pick to Vegas as part of a deal to protect Josh Anderson. The Golden Knights ended up with William Karlsson and he took off right away.
Even worse, the Blue Jackets had to give away their second rounder to Vancouver because it was compensation owed for hiring John Tortorella. It’s never easy to make something out of a draft if you don’t have your first or second rounder.
Don’t tell that to Jarmo Kekalainen though. He made something happen and it could have a big impact on this season.
The Blue Jackets made a trade on the second day of the draft to acquire a second-round pick from Vegas in exchange for prospect Keegan Kolesar. That pick became Alexandre Texier. He is a rookie, but appeared in meaningful games late last season including the playoffs. But that’s not all.
In the fourth round, the Blue Jackets selected a Swedish center by the name of Emil Bemstrom. He spent the 2018-19 season in Sweden’s SHL and posted 23 goals in 47 games and added five more in 10 playoff games. That’s pretty good for a 20-year old in a men’s league.
Bemstrom carried that momentum to Columbus for this training camp and he won a job. The team sees the upside he can bring on the power play. He will start with a fourth line role but will see power-play time on the first unit on the left wall.
Where he will shine is when given the puck in close range. He has a deadly shot. Everyone I’ve talked to from former teammates to coaches to current players all say the same thing about Bemstrom. He can shoot the puck. If he can consistently do this, it will give a much needed boost to a power play that has had consistency issues the last few years. He could also give a scoring punch to the fourth line.
Bemstrom says he’s nervous for his first regular season game, but he’s also excited to achieve his dream. He will have his mother and brother in the stands watching his first game. Lilja will have his parents watching his debut.
Amazingly, Bemstrom is not the only member of his SHL team to make the Blue Jackets. Jacob Lilja did enough at camp and he too has made the roster.
Lilja finished with 37 points in 52 games including 12 goals. He led his team in assists and points while Bemstrom led them in scoring.
The Blue Jackets signed Lilja on June 15 to a one-year entry-level deal. He was perhaps the biggest surprise of all from training camp. As it turns out, he had the most successful camp and earned his roster spot. Zac Dalpe, Markus Hannikainen and other veterans fell short and were assigned to the AHL despite needing waivers. Lilja didn’t need waivers. That shows you how much the team liked what they saw out of Lilja.
What role will he have early on? Expect Lilja to play on the wing of the fourth line with Bemstrom and center Riley Nash. This isn’t your typical fourth line as there is an ability to score within these players.
Lilja just does everything well. He can score. He can make the correct read. He is 26-years old so he does have years of experience playing in the SHL. Expect his minutes to be limited some in the beginning but don’t be surprised if he does produce when given more of a chance.
We all knew he was coming. We just weren’t sure what we’d get right out of the gate. With Sergei Bobrovsky gone, Elvis Merzlikins had a chance to jump from Switzerland to the NHL, while possibly winning a starting job.
Although he did not win the starting job to incumbent Joonas Korpisalo, Merzlikins is the backup and will play a huge role this season. Although he wouldn’t bite Friday when asked about possibly playing in Pittsburgh Saturday, that possibility is certainly in play given that it’s a back-to-back to start the season.
Korpisalo is the clear starter for now based on camp and the preseason. But if he starts to struggle and Merzlikins can prove he’s made the proper adjustments to the smaller rink, it’s not out of the question that he earns a majority of starts later. Tortorella has said the team doesn’t have a true number-one. Korpisalo is there for now, but it could change.
Merzlikins was picked in the third round of the 2014 NHL Draft. He has spent his entire career to date in Switzerland. The Latvian netminder starred on the world stage against elite players. He now comes to Columbus looking to prove the hype is real.
Merzlikins has swagger and is very confident. He gets mad at himself even if he lets in one goal during practice. About that, he said that he will have to work harder next time so that goal doesn’t go in again. Even Tortorella has had to calm him down some because of the passion he brings. He’s a character and has rock star ability especially if he figures things out.
We will hear from him soon. Temper your expectations early on, but don’t be surprised if he eventually becomes the number-one. He has the higher ceiling of the current goaltending duo in Columbus.
And that completes our regular season preview. It’s finally time for the real games to begin. When they do, these three rookies along with Texier will show you why they won a roster spot out of camp. They earned it.
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 2021-22 season will mark eight seasons with the Hockey Writers. I am also the site’s Credentials Manager.