The Blue Jackets aren't ready to anoint Elvis Merzlikins as their number-one goaltender just yet.
Earlier this week, the club announced a five-year, $27 million extension for the Latvian netminder. His counterpart, Joonas Korpisalo is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the conclusion of the 2021-22 NHL season.
Despite that, GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a press conference on Wednesday that the Blue Jackets expect Korpisalo to challenge Merzlikins for the starting role. That may not happen at the beginning of the season, because Korpisalo has been held out of training camp with a lower-body injury. When the two are healthy, Kekalainen said that the Blue Jackets will likely ride the hot hand. He also didn't rule out signing Korpisalo to an extension.
"I think Joonas Korpisalo's play will dictate his future," said Kekalainen. "If he decides that he doesn't want to sign with us, he will have a lot of other options around the league. Everybody's looking for a guy who has number-one ability in this league, and he's shown that at times. He didn't have his best year last year, but we expect him to bounce back and anything is possible after that."
Korpisalo has some extra motivation going into a contract year. If he's unable (or unwilling) to reach an extension with the Blue Jackets, he needs to have a strong season to play his way into a solid contract elsewhere in the NHL.
"Ice time will not be divided by the numbers on the contract. It'll be divided based on their play."– GM Jarmo Kekalainen on Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo
"He knows he's going into a contract year," said Kekalainen. "He wants to be a good NHL goalie. He wants to be a number-one goalie in the NHL. I think he's got a great challenge ahead of him. I think his attitude is perfect about it. He said to me that he's not going to worry about this at all. He's gonna just have a great season and go from there."
If the Blue Jackets are to compete for a playoff spot this season, both Korpisalo and Merzlikins will need to be at their best. They'll be behind a young defensive group, so it's more than likely that they'll be put in some tough situations.
"I've said many times that goaltending is one of our strengths," said Kekalainen. "We've had a great goaltending tandem here for the last couple years, and they've competed hard for the ice time. They'll continue to compete hard for the ice time, I'm sure...to take a risk where both of them are in their last year before hitting the unrestricted free agency was a risk we were not willing to take. We got a long-term deal done with Elvis because of that."
Merzlikins is ready to work, and he acknowledged that the competition with Korpisalo is fierce. Both goaltenders can use it to fuel their fire and get better every day.
"I see huge trust in my organization to me," he said on Wednesday. "We (he and Korpisalo) are going to push really hard. At the end of the day, we're working for our club and our organization."