Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics: Elvis Merzlikins Is Having A Better Season Than The Surface Numbers Indicate

By Ed Francis on January 24, 2022 at 1:45 pm
Elvis Merzlikins won't "win a f**king Vezina" this season, but the Columbus Blue Jackets defense hasn't done him any favors in that quest.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
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Technically, Elvis Merzlikins is having the worst season of his three-year career.

But that's technically

It was Mark Twain who popularized the phrase that "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

That final lie is the type that could be applied to Merzlikins' 2021-22 season.

To date, Merzlikins has posted a 14-10-1 record, with a .912 save percentage and a goals against average of 3.06. Those numbers are down from 23 starts during the 2020-21 campaign, where those last two numbers were .916 and 2.77, and that was down a bit from his rookie season, where Merzlikins posted a .923 SV% and 2.35 GAA in 31 starts. 

This comes in a year where Merzlikins, prior to the start of the season, stated that his plan was to win the Vezina Trophy in honor of late teammate Matiss Kivlienks.

"I'm gonna win a f**king Vezina for him," said Merzlikins. "We can't make promises because this is hockey and we don't know how the season can go, but this is my goal. I believe I'm going to reach it."

The numbers, unfortunately, don't lend themselves to a season where Merzlikins will be able to fulfill that goal.

But those numbers don't tell the whole story. The shot quality, the shot quantity, who and where those shots are coming from — all mysteries wrapped in one final number. Advanced statistics, love 'em or hate 'em, help show the true story. Look at his year-over-year stats compared to what the in-depth metrics say:

GA/SV% vs xGA/xSV%
Season GA xGA Difference SV% xSV% Difference
2019-20 2.35 2.27      -0.08 .923 .924      -0.01
2020-21 2.77 2.65      -0.12 .916 .918      -0.02
2021-22 3.06 3.23     +0.17 .912 .909      +0.03

In other words, while Merzlikins' first two seasons were really good, the detailed stats say that they could, and perhaps should, have been a little bit better. This season though, despite numbers that are down from the previous two, Merzlikins is actually outperforming what the numbers should be.

Another fun one to look at: high-danger, unblocked shots. This season, about one in every five shots (20%) fall in this category. On average, they're the toughest 5-7 shots a goalie will face every game. And for Merzlikins, here's what the numbers tell us:

High-Danger, Unblocked Shots
Season SV% xSV% Difference
2019-20 .760 .713     +0.047
2020-21 .589 .652     -0.063
2021-22 .815 .659     +0.157

An incredible .815 amongst high-danger, unblocked shot attempts this season. That is fourth-best in the league (third sits at .816%) amongst goalies who have played in 20 games, and the +0.157 difference ranks second across the NHL.

So, why are his surface stats showing he's having the worst year of his career? Much of this goes to the youth movement, particularly on the blue line, in front of him. Seth Jones isn't playing at Nationwide Arena anymore. Neither is David Savard. This season, the third pairing this season has been a mixed bag of fringe players who — even playing limited minutes on a non-contending team — are as high in the lineup as they'll get in the NHL. 

The weakened defense has led to more opportunities for the opposing offenses. The Blue Jackets blue line gives up 34.6 shots per game, 30th in the league and just a tenth of a shot per game away from 31st. But dig deeper, and this glaring stat emerges: Columbus is dead last in the league in shots allowed per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play. At 34.8, they are a half shot worse than the Buffalo Sabres 34.3, which is second worst. By comparison, the Boston Bruins lead the league in the category at 27.0. That's a 23% difference. That's huge, and it makes life difficult for a goaltender in the NHL. More shots, more chances, more saves to be made — it catches up to even the best of goalies.

Merzlikins won't always have a weak blue line in front of him though. Defenders in the NHL take a lot more to develop than their offensive counterparts, and in some cases, even longer than goaltenders. Adam Boqvist has made big strides this year, but he's still just 21. The story is the same with 23-year-old Andrew Peeke, who is having the season many in the front office were hoping for. Jake Bean, same story; 23-year-old who just Sunday played his 82th game in the NHL; the equivalent to one full season. And Zach Werenski, who seems like a 30-year-old veteran at this point, is still just 24 — and in his first half season of being a number one defenseman. (If this team gets Jakub Chychrun without giving up any of those parts, look out.

For Merzlikins, the team playing in front of him is probably about as "bad" as it'll get. The aforementioned blueliners are developing at the rate they should, and while next season may be bumpy at times, the future two years out (and beyond) looks significantly brighter. 

Stick it out, Elvis. That f**king Vezina will come one day.

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