Examining the "Cleveland Effect": Does Playing in AHL Cleveland Between Starts Improve NHL Play?

By Max Steele on December 1, 2019 at 8:15 am
Nov 30, 2019; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins (90) defends a shot against the New York Islanders during the second period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This season, the Columbus Blue Jackets have employed the strategy of sending rookie goaltender Elvis Merzlikins to AHL affiliate, Cleveland during time between his NHL starts.

It's a strategy used to keep a backup (or 1-B) active while the #1 goalie (or hot hand) consistently starts.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are not shy to use this strategy as they've used it before with Joonas Korpisalo.  When Korpisalo backed up Sergei Bobrovsky (and didn't require waivers when sent down), he also spent intermittent time in the Rock'n'roll Capital of the World.

The consistent use of this strategy begs the question: does it work?  In this article we analyze Korpisalo's starts after his return from Cleveland during the 2017-2018 campaign (when he frequently traveled up I-71) in comparison with Merzlikins' two starts after playing for the Monsters so far this year.

 Joonas Korpisalo 2017-2018

During the 2017-2018 campaign Korpisalo sported an .898 save percentage with 2 wins and 3 losses in 5 games after returning from AHL demotion. 

However, in starts before which Korpisalo played multiple games for the Cleveland Monsters, the Finnish goaltender went 2 for 2 in wins and had a .955 save percentage. 

There are some who believe that Korpisalo is a goaltender who thrives on a consistent workload and these numbers suggest that to be true.  

So what do these numbers suggest about the "Cleveland Effect" for Korpisalo?  While overall, it appears that the demotions to the AHL did not aid his performance, the times he was allowed to get consistent play in the minor leagues boosted his performance upon returning to the NHL.

Elvis Merzlikins 2019-2020

Now, let's take a look at Elvis Merzlikins' numbers this year after his starts in Cleveland.  

In Merzlikins' two starts after time up I-71, he is 0-1-1 with a .932 save percentage and a GAA of 2.00.  These numbers are much better than his overall stats for this season, but statistical outliers (such as the 7-2 performance against Pittsburgh) and a limited sample size inhibit any definitive conclusions about these statistics.

However, the numbers do suggest that he has benefited from time in the minors.  The question the becomes: if Merzlikins isn't starting consistently in the NHL, why doesn't he get more AHL work if it appears it's helped so far? 

Perhaps, ego plays a role.  Merzlikins made news last spring when his short-term contract forbid the team from sending him to Cleveland and, now, the team may be afraid that his confidence would be affected by consistent stays by Lake Erie.

Regardless, it may be a strategy the team would want to experiment with.  In a season where one of the goals appears to be to determine the future of goaltending for the Columbus Blue Jackets, setting each player up for success is paramount. 

And if one of the ways the team can accomplish that is through giving Merzlikins starts in the AHL between NHL performances, the team should not shy away from doing so.

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