Goaltending still rules in the NHL.
Despite what some of these wild games in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs have shown us, strong play in the net helps take over games and series, and you need strong goaltending if you're going to contend for the Stanley Cup.
For the Columbus Blue Jackets, coming off a season that was far less painful than most anticipated at the outset of the 2021-22 regular season, there are obvious weaknesses to address for the team if they're going to take the next step. Among those areas is goaltending.
Consider just a few of the below examples.
Vezina Trophy candidate Igor Shesterkin improved upon his rookie season in 2020-21 to lead the league in save percentage, goals against average, and goals saved above average, helping the New York Rangers advance back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2019-20 qualifying round if you want to count it, and in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2016-17.
As dangerous as the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are, former Vezina and reigning Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy helps lead the charge.
His play since Game 2 of their series versus the Rangers helped the Lightning out of a 2-0 series hole—their first such playoff deficit since the 2019 Quarterfinals against the Blue Jackets—and the Lightning are now one win from a third straight Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Another Vezina finalist that helped lead his team to the playoffs is Jacob Markstrom.
How Markstrom and the Calgary Flames ultimately performed in the playoffs, particularly in the second round against the Edmonton Oilers who dispatched the Flames in five games, is all anyone thinks about right now. Yet, during the regular season, Markstrom finished third in goals saved above average, fourth in save percentage, and third in goals against average.
"You've got to play defense, man." -- Wayne Gretzky, on TNT.— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) June 1, 2022
Then you see the way the Colorado Avalanche quickly dispatched the Oilers in a four-game sweep, with two goalies in Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz.
Though you might not consider either Avalanche goalie to be up to the par of a Vezina performer, Kuemper was sixth in goals saved above expected (15.77) or one spot behind Markstrom (16.06) per Evolving-Hockey. Both Avalanche net minders are in the negatives for that stat during the playoffs and Kuemper only appeared in Game 1 against the Oilers after leaving with an upper-body injury. He will play in the Cup Final.
As a team, the Avalanche are also so deep that you may not necessarily need Vezina elite goaltending to get by. We'll soon find out if that's the case when they play the winner of the Rangers and Lightning series next week in the Stanley Cup Final, whereas we just laid out, that both the Lightning and Rangers feature the edge (on paper) in goaltending.
If you're the Blue Jackets, it's nice when you have a Vezina winner such as when they had their own in Sergei Bobrovsky. The Blue Jackets don't currently have goalies like those already mentioned and that's not to say you necessarily need that.
And it's not to say a guy like Elvis Merzlikins won't still take that next step and be like those goalies above. That's what the Blue Jackets were banking on when they signed Merzlikins to his five-year extension before last season.
Coming off his third year in the NHL, Merzlikins is basically coming off his first full season as the team's No. 1 guy, starting 56 games on the season.
The numbers don't look awful when you look at his 27-23-7 record but the 3.22 GAA and .907 save percentage will need to be better. Joonas Korpisalo suffered through the worst season of his career, which prematurely came to an end in March following an injury that required hip surgery. He'll be back after signing a one-year contract as a UFA.
When looking at GSAx, both Merzlikins and Korpisalo finished in the negative. Mentioning at the top how well some of those goalies have performed using this metric, GSAx helps isolate the play of the goalie, taking into account shot location and the quality of shots faced.
GSAx, an actual advanced stat, is based on expected goals models that value shots against differently based on their quality (primarily distance from the net). It accounts for everything that GSAA does, but without assuming that all goalies face equally difficult shots.— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) March 2, 2020
In order to help aid Merzlikins in taking that next step, Brad Larsen started Merzlikins in 16 of the final 18 games of the regular season, and he appeared in most of the season finale after J-F Berube was tagged for three quick goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He's going to learn to play tired," Larsen said in April. "He's going to learn to play on the back-to-backs, three in four's. Hopefully, we're in this situation next year, we're right there. Either just in or just out and we're fighting and these games mean something."
Another thing to consider is that the Blue Jackets weren't a serious threat to contend last season, the team was expected to be worse than things turned out, and how the rest of the players on the ice are playing, specifically one of the most inexperienced blue lines in front of the goaltending, are all factors in how they help or hurt their goalies.
It's all part of the off-season focus as the front office and coaching staff take a look at trying to cure the leak that sprung to a dubious franchise record number of 297 goals against.
"We're going to look at all of it," Larsen said. "I look at all the teams, we look at their goals and what are they doing? Are they man-to-man, are they zone?
"Is it the system, do we need to make changes? Can these guys grow into the system? I don't know if there's a right or wrong way but I do know that it has to get better and how we're going to get there. We're going to talk about all these things, is it personnel, do we need to add some more experience back there."
Merzlikins appreciated the workload he received at the end of the season.
"I'm really grateful to have lived this experience," Merzlikins said. "I feel completely a different goalie right now. I learned how to handle the back-to-backs, how to handle the pressure, and how to rest."
We talk and hear about the good things that transpired last season. Seeing the resiliency among the group on and off the ice, and playing above pre-season expectations is great.
Now is the time to see what this group is made of as they look to improve in all areas and raise that bar in 2022-23.