The Columbus Blue Jackets and Elvis Merzlikins appear to be engaging in contract extension discussions, per Elliotte Friedman's weekly 31 Thoughts blog.
Merzlikins, who is an impending RFA, will be seeking a raise on his $875k salary. There's a bit of nuance involved before we go any further. Joonas Korpisalo, who was voted an NHL All-Star before a knee injury and the 4-6 recovery from meniscus surgery opened the door for Merzlikins, is also an RFA. Both players will be under team control.
Then there's the salary cap. Reports surfaced earlier this month that the cap would raise from $81.5M to $84-$88M, but the COVID-19 pandemic has halted any optimism on such a raise. The Blue Jackets spent less money on goaltenders than any team in the NHL this season, with just $2.024M on the Korpisalo/Merzlikins battery. That will surely change next season.
Then there's the debate about who to bring back in goal next year. Korpisalo has a longer track record. Merzlikins appears to have a higher ceiling. Both are 25-years old. And there seems to be a growing appetite for a situation in which NHL teams split time more equitably than in the past, which would allow for both goalies to remain on the club. With nearly $16M in cap space projected for next year, per CapFriendly, the Blue Jackets would appear able to sign both goaltenders and have plenty of room leftover.
Despite an abysmal start to his season/career, Merzlikins has been the superior goalie this year compared to Korpisalo by virtually every metric, including Sv% (.923 vs. .911), GAA (2.35 vs. 2.60), shutouts (five vs. two), and Hockey-reference's goals saved about average (GSAA) (12.10 vs. 1.14). Worth noting: Merzlikins ranks tied for second in the NHL in shutouts (despite starting 25 games less than Connor Hellebuyck, who has six) and ninth in the NHL in GSAA. Hellebuyck, who has a legitimate claim the Hart Trophy (given to the NHL's most valuable player), has a .922 Sv% this season.
By my estimation, Merzlikins looks to have the inside track at the defacto starting job next year, even if the Blue Jackets look to bring back Korpisalo to the fold. Between the superior numbers and the lack of reporting on a Korpisalo contract extension, Merzlikins is the priority. The good news for the Blue Jackets: they wield negotiating leverage over both RFA goaltenders.
In my humble opinion, goalies are akin to running-backs in football (in that there isn't a ton of variation between most starting running backs in the NFL) but are as important as any position in sports. Without a goalie, it's very difficult to win (much less compete for a Stanley Cup), but there are plenty of serviceable goaltenders in the NHL. We've seen time and time again a young goalie gets a chance and runs with it (Matt Murray, JS Giguere, Cam Ward, Jordan Binnington, etc). The point is, overpaying for a goalie is bad business. I'm glad the Blue Jackets were able to move on from Sergei Bobrovsky.
Per CapFriendly, 17 goalies had an AAV of $5M or more. Neither Merzlikins nor Korpisalo will necessitate that level of compensation, but where may Merzlikins land?
The aforementioned Binnington came out of nowhere (technically he came from the AHL) and played 32 regular-season games in 2018-19 (one less than Merzlikins has this season) before leading the St. Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The rookie parlayed that into a two-year, $8.8M contract ($4.4M AAV). I bring that up to set a ceiling. Merzlikins won't make more than this in his next contract...
...But he may be closer than I thought before digging into the comparables. Merzlikins will become a UFA at age 27, meaning the club could sign him (and/or Korpisalo) to a one-year deal and do this dance again next summer. A two-year deal would walk him to UFA, which wouldn't be ideal from Columbus' sense. A three-year deal would make sense for both parties.
Two goalies with similar enough numbers in their pre-contract season who recently graduated from backup to starters on three-year deals are Philip Grubauer (who's numbers in 2017-18 were almost identical to Merzlikins) and Jacob Markstrom (while Merzlikins isn't technically a backup, he's paid as one). In June of 2018, Grubauer, still an RFA, signed a three-year deal with Colorado worth $10M ($3.33M AAV). In July of 2016, Markstrom, who was also an RFA at the time of his signing, inked a three-year deal $11M ($3.66M). It's safe to say that both goalies had a bigger body of work - at least, in the NHL - than Merzlikins. Does that mean they were/are valued more highly (then?) than Merzlikins is (now)? Hard to say. Let's say Merzlikins is worth 90% of what Gruabuer and Markstrom were, on average, solely based on longevity and proof of concept.
When Grubauer signed, his cap hit represented 4.19% of the overall cap, compared to 5.02% for Markstrom when he signed his deal. If we split the difference, and assume the cap for 2020-21 comes in at a modest raise at $84M (that's a generous leap of faith, but that's for a different article) we can say that Merzlikins could see a deal that pays him $3.4M AAV ($84M * 4.5% * 90%).
Official prediction: 3-years, $10.2M