The Columbus Blue Jackets entered the 2019-20 season with major question marks in goal, with two goaltenders vying for an NHL starting job for the first time in their career.
The season ended not with question marks, but with exclamation points.
Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins were both exceptional, with Korpisalo being named to the All-Star Game (he was subsequently injured) and Merzlikins being named the goalie on the NHL All-Rookie Team. The two goalies, who are each 26-years old, are now seen as a key strength on a team that looks (marginally) stronger on paper than the one that was bounced in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the eventual-champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Both goalies are signed to team-friendly contracts (Korpisalo is signed at $2.8M and Merzlikins at $4M AAV) for the next two seasons, at which point each will become a UFA. The expectation is that the club will be unable to keep both goalies - each are ready for a bigger role and are in the prime of their respective careers. And while many speculated that a trade would be in the offing this offseason, the reality is the oversaturated goalie market made it difficult to find value on the trade market. Lastly, the club is well set up for the upcoming Seattle expansion draft, as Merzlikins is exempt. As such, the club will 'protect' Korpisalo and be able to keep their tandem into the 2021-22 season, should they choose to keep the tandem intact.
So the franchise is in good shape for the immediate future, but what about beyond that?
The Blue Jackets have passed on goalies in each of the past two NHL Drafts. Veini Vehvilainen, the last goalie picked by the franchise, was selected in the 6th round in 2018. That marked the third straight year they selected a goalie. In 2016, the club picked Peter Thome in the 6th round, then in 2017 drafted Daniil Tarasov in the 3rd round.
In 2017, the franchise signed free-agent goalie Matiss Kilvenieks to an entry-level goalie. Kilvenieks, 24, has had a meteoric rise through the junior and pro hockey ranks, going from the unheralded Minnesota Junior Hockey League (MNJHL) to the NAHL, to the USHL, to the AHL between 2014-15 and 2018-19. He was never drafted and is now the organization's number three goalie.
Conventional wisdom suggests drafting a goalie in every draft should keep the cupboard well-stocked. But with the organization having just three picks in 2019 and five in 2020, the club elected to look elsewhere. This could come back to bite them in the future, but on the other hand, Kilvenieks was an undrafted player. With the franchise's proficiency in scouting, particularly in Europe, the two-year gap is less of a concern that it may otherwise have been.
In 2022 and beyond, it's safe to assume that the club will only have one of their current starting goalies. Their backup could be Kilvenieks, but it could just as easily be one of their other prospects, like Vehvilainen or Tarasov. Vehvilainen had an up and down year in the AHL in 2019-20 in his North American debut. Tarasov is seen as the goalie with the highest ceiling of the bunch. The 21-year old Russian had planned on coming to North America in 2020-21, but was loaned to KHL Salavat Yulaev Ufa, where he's played (and won) two games this fall.
The Blue Jackets are well-positioned in goal. The club can expect to move on from one of their two starting-caliber goalies in the next two seasons, as it's unrealistic to imagine both signing in Columbus as UFAs in a platoon scenario.
That should give the franchise time to assess their organizational options. Between Kilvenieks, Vehvilainen, and Tarasov, the club feels confident (as they should) that at least one of these goaltenders will emerge as viable contingency plans when the time comes. And as we've seen this offseason, a surplus of veteran NHL-caliber goalies means that, even if the club feels that none of the above are ready for NHL minutes, they should be able to find a stop-gap in the intermediary.
It would be surprising if the Blue Jackets let another draft come and go without taking a goalie. At the very least, signing a free-agent goalie (a la Kilvenieks) should keep their pipeline running strong.