A Hypothetical Shortened Season Would Be Advantageous For A Blue Jackets Team With Two Capable Goaltenders

By Dan Dukart on November 12, 2020 at 8:05 am
Joonas Korpisalo shows his support for Elvis Merzlikins
Chase Agnello-Dean-USA TODAY Sports

In a vacuum, the Columbus Blue Jackets have an advantage over many NHL rivals when it comes to goaltending. Between Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, the Blue Jackets have two legitimate number one goalies.

We don't have to reach back too far into the archives to see how important it is to have two quality goalies on the same roster. Merzlikins nearly single-handedly carried the Blue Jackets into the postseason, going on a ridiculous run after Korpisalo was injured in late December 2019. In the playoffs, the tables were turned, with Korpisalo filling in for the injured Merzlikins. Korpisalo was magical and gave the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning a scare, posting an absurd .941 save percentage and 1.90 GAA in nine postseason starts.

There was speculation that the club would trade one of their key assets in goal for a player, but an oversaturated market and a rowdy game of goalie musical chairs means that the Blue Jackets will (barring something unforeseen) head into the 2020-21 season with the same duo intact. And with the Covid-19 pandemic pushing back the start date, it's looking more and more likely that the next season will be notably shorter and compressed.

Compressed schedules infer more back-to-back games, which puts a great deal of stress - and pressure - on a club's starting goalie. Fortunately for Columbus, they have the luxury of two starters.

In 2013, hockey analytics pioneer Eric Tulsky wrote a piece for the well-known Philadelphia Flyers fan blog Broad Street Bullies titled "Why goalies should almost never start back-to-back games". Tulsky, who is now the Vice President of Hockey Management and Strategy for the Carolina Hurricanes, argued that fatigue is solely responsible for a significant reduction in save percentage on the second half of a back-to-back. And while some public work has gone on to refute some of these findings, conventional wisdom and groupthink have led to an environment where it's basically widely accepted that goalies will play one - but not both games - of a back-to-back. 

In a theoretical 50 or 60-game season, the Blue Jackets could easily find themselves playing double digits back-to-back series, three-in-four's, etc. (Note: the club was scheduled a Metropolitan Division-high 16 back-to-back games in 2019-20) Being able to play a fresh goalie every night should help them stay competitive in a razor-thin environment where fewer games mean less time to distinguish the upper class from the middle class (it's hard to distinguish in an 82 game season, but that's largely due to forced parity due to a loser point in overtime, but that's neither here nor there). 

Of course, every goalie wants the chance to take the net and run with it. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Merzlikins and Korpisalo, respectively, went on torrid runs when his counterpart was injured. Managing each goaltender's playing time will be worth monitoring. 

And while John Tortorella and his staff don't have to publicly say anything about who they feel is the stronger goalie (Korpisalo started in Game 1 of the qualifying round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, if you'll recall), we'll be able to glean a fair bit of information about how the staff feels about his goaltenders based on which goalie gets the nod on the front half of a back-to-back, where his team is fresher.

The Blue Jackets may lack where other teams have strengths, but their goaltending tandem is one area where the club is easily in the upper echelon of the league. And while it's difficult to project goaltending from one year to the next, and so much of goaltending is dependent on the system in which the goalie plays (hello, Florida), the club should feel more than comfortable having two reliable number one goalies that can both stay fresh throughout an entire season.