With Elvis Merzlikins' Improved Play, What Will the Blue Jackets Do with the Goaltending Position When Joonas Korpisalo Returns from Injury?

By Max Steele on January 11, 2020 at 10:15 am
Dec 29, 2019; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) slides the puck under Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo (70) for goal during the shootout at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports
© Russell LaBounty-USA TODAY Sports

Going into this season, the biggest question mark around a team who had lost its best players to free agency was its goaltending situation.  The Blue Jackets decided to go into 2019-2020 with an unproven tandem of Joonas Korpisalo (who hadn't played more than 31 games in a season) and Elvis Merzlikins (who hadn't played in North America) and while the two goaltenders had a shaky start, Korpisalo was first to demonstrate his worth as an NHL starter.

However, just as Korpisalo's game was ramping up and the Blue Jackets had played their way into the playoff race, it was announced that he'd be sidelined for 4 to 6 weeks with a torn meniscus, leaving the starter's net to Merzlikins for the foreseeable future.  Luckily for the Blue Jackets' playoff hopes, Elvis Merzlikins has played very well during his stint as a starter in Korpisalo's stead.  

Since both goaltenders have proven their prowess and Korpisalo poised to return from injury in early February, new questions emerge for the Blue Jacket organization.  One of the questions would then become "what to do once Korpisalo returns from injury?"  The rest of this article will explore two scenarios to handle the goaltending situation for the rest of the season.

50/50 Split

One option the team has is to evenly split the starter's net as they head into the final months of the season.  Both goaltenders have proven they can start, so why not give them equal playing time?  Split time would allow both goaltenders to play with intermittent rest, which might help whichever goaltender would play in the post-season, should the team make the playoffs.  Speaking of the playoff race, the 50/50 split could also allow equal opportunity for both goalies to state their case to be the post-season netminder.

A piece of context working against the success of this option could be both Korpisalo and Merzlikins' perceived improved play with successive starts.  A split would limit the consecutive games they would have.  Since they have both demonstrated that consistent starts positively affect their performance, with continued time this option could be detrimental.

Korpisalo's Still "The Guy"

Another option for the team upon Korpisalo's return is to reinstate the status quo from before his injury, Korpisalo handling a starter's load and Merzlikins falling back to an intermittent back-up role.  This option would allow the organization's more experienced goaltender to hone his game during the most important part of the season: the playoff race.  

The negative for this course of action would, of course, be Merzlikins' limited role.  The Latvian goaltender has played very well recently and the Blue Jackets may not overly eager to cede the net back to a goalie who has been sidelined for over a month and is recovering from knee surgery.  Also, the organization needs to know what kind of player they have in Merzlikins going forward.  If he finishes the year in a limited role, it may not show leadership what they need to know to make informed decisions going forward.

While these are not the only two options for the Blue Jackets goaltending situation, they're two likely scenarios.  Luckily for the Blue Jackets, they have the opportunity to make this sort of decision based on the strong play of both of their netminders.  Other clubs would love to have this sort of difficult situation, deciding what to do going forward with two NHL-caliber goaltenders.

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