To say that Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins have exceeded expectations this season would be an understatement.
Coming into the season, the Blue Jackets goaltenders were the least experienced tandem in the NHL. The Athletic's Craig Custance goalie tiers ranking (an anonymous survey among NHL staffers, not his opinions) listed Korpisalo tied for 28th among starting goalies. Merzlikins, admittedly not the projected starter heading into the year, wasn't mentioned in the piece.
Of course, plenty has changed in the months since then. After a forgettable start to the season had the Blue Jackets trending towards a lottery pick, the goaltending (and the club's shooting percentage) stabilized, allowing the team to inch back into the playoff battle despite a plethora of injuries.
These injuries included but were certainly not limited to Korpisalo. But with hindsight being 20/20, it was in the best interest of the organization for such an injury to occur, even if it meant it would cost the Finn a (well-deserved) trip to his first All-Star Game.
Why? Because it gave the franchise an opportunity to get a great look at Merzlikins (who was definitively not great in his once-in-a-blue-moon appearances) on a regular basis. The Latvian, who has been accustomed to playing virtually every game for Lugano in the top professional Swiss league for years, was caught between a rock and a hard place having no way to establish himself as Korpisalo rode his wave. Since Korpisalo went down on Dec. 29, Merzlikins has gone 6-2-0 with a .950 save% (compared with 0-4-4 with a .889 save% prior). Heading into Wednesday night's games, Merzlikins was tied for 13th in the NHL in save% at .921, while Korpisalo wasn't far behind at 23rd (.913%).
Management and the coaching staff alike were prepared to play Korpisalo 65-plus games this season, which would be potentially great for pending RFA Korpisalo but equally damaging for pending RFA Merzlikins. The injury will likely complicate issues when Korpisalo is able to return, but what a great problem for management to have heading into the trade deadline/off-season.
Consider the alternative. Let's say Korpisalo never got hurt, and Merzlikins never got a chance to play with regularity. The season could end without knowing exactly what they have in both goalies, which would be a huge mistake. Even if Merzlikins (or Korpisalo) was truly bad, at least the club could make decisions accordingly going forward.
While it would be sunshine and rainbows for the club to keep both netminders around for the long haul, the salary cap and the Blue Jackets' depth chart make that scenario highly unlikely. With both becoming RFA after this season, it was in the best interest of the franchise to see – for their sake and in order to showcase to the rest of the NHL – what type of goalies they have on their hands.
It's likely that the franchise will have to make a decision in goal in the coming year or two. The organization still has strong depth in goal, with Veini Vehviläinen, a 23-year-old Finn, starring at the AHL level. Then there's Daniil Tarasov, a 20-year-old Russian, who's on loan to Assat of Finland's Liiga, one of the top leagues in the world. It would not be a shock to see Vehviläinen or Tarasov play in the NHL, but the latter may be a few years away. More likely in the short term would be trading one of their two goalies for offensive help and replacing that goalie via free agency. This year's class is strong, and there are plenty of veteran options that could come in as more-than-competent backups that can also mentor one of Korpisalo/Merzlikins.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we? Merzlikins doesn't yet have a winning record in the NHL, and Korpisalo, while impressive, still has much to prove. And who knows how the ice time will be divvied once Korpisalo returns. But if the trend continues and the organization has two quality assets at the same age/position/contract situation, it would behoove the Blue Jackets to act from a position of strength to add the scoring punch they currently lack.