After a surprising summer led to the Columbus Blue Jackets being one of the big winners of the offseason, the expectations are rising again for the franchise that calls Nationwide Arena home.
The signing of Johnny Gaudreau was, of course, the big catalyst. The extension of Patrik Laine, the addition of Eric Gudbranson, the arrival of Kirill Marchenko — all parts that add up to the sum of the Blue Jackets potentially finding themselves in playoff contention after a two-year hiatus.
From casual fans to experts (and so-called experts), the general thought process is that the Blue Jackets offseason has boosted them to bubble status. In other words, one of those teams fighting for a playoff spot until the final week of the season.
Whether or not the Blue Jackets can actually get back into the postseason for the first time since the 2019-20 season, though?
Elvis Merzlikins could have the final say in answering that.
Scoring goals wasn't the issue with Columbus last season. They set a franchise record with 262 goals for, and if scoring was the sole factor in picking playoff teams, the Blue Jackets would have been in.
The problem is, they gave up 300 goals; 28th of 32 in the league, and an amount that will keep just about any team out of the postseason — even a 262-goal team that added a 115-point player in Gaudreau.
Enter: the importance of Merzlikins' between the pipes in the coming season.
There were 61 goalies across the NHL who saw action in at least 20 games last season. Joonas Korpisalo, who returns this year as Merzlikins' backup, ranked dead last in goals against with a putrid 4.15. That's bad, though slightly more understandable considering that Korpisalo also ranked 61st in the expected goals against category.
But Merzlikins wasn't much better. His 3.22 goals against average ranked 49th of those 61, and while that was slightly better than his 3.29 (60th-ranked) goals against, it still was Merzlikins' worst season in the NHL by a wide margin. His rookie season saw a 2.35 goals against average, and the 2020-21 campaign checked in at 2.77.
Also a career-worst (though, the sample size is small) was his save percentage. His first two seasons saw rates at .923 and .916, while this past season was sitting at .907. Quality starts were down too, from 55% and 61% in the first two years, respectively, to 48% in the 2021-22 season.
The elephant in the room and the reason you could argue for an asterisk next to those numbers is that the Blue Jackets defense was, to put it nicely, not good. Zach Werenski was fine in his first season as the defensive leader of the club, and while youngsters like Adam Boqvist and Andrew Peeke showed considerable improvement and got better as the season went on, it's not a defense that is feared by any team in the league. They played a soft game, in part because of a lack of experience, but in part because a rugged, heavy-hitting style is not one that any of the Columbus blue liners specialized in.
Gudbranson will help that to some degree, but his toughness and style of play are what got him paid in Columbus — not his defensive ability. His experience matters, too. Gudbranson's 641 career NHL games are more than Peeke, Boqvist, Vladislav Gavrikov, Jake Bean, and Nick Blankenburg combined.
But Merzlikins is now in year one of a five-year contract extension he signed last year; one that boosted his pay to $5.4 million per year. With the raise in pay comes the raise in expectations, regardless of the defense that's around him.
At least one of those expectations, fair or not, will be to make the saves that an average goalie would not. One metric to measure that is the expected goals against. Merzlikins was fairly average in that category this year. His xGAA this year was at 3.29; so his 3.22 final number ranked +0.07 better than the expected average. Of the 44 goalies with 30 or more games this season, he ranked 20th; not great, but not miserable. (For perspective, Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin of the New York Rangers led the league this year at +0.67.)
For a myriad of reasons, both on and off the ice, it was a tough season for Merzlikins. At the end of the season, he openly discussed some of his trauma in coping with the loss of friend and fellow Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks, who died in July 2021 in a fireworks accident.
He also had lingering injuries, became a father, and of course, played behind a young, inexperienced, below-average defense. These aren't excuses; but they are reasons that may explain the inconsistency.
With more experience and time to heal wounds both emotional and physical, Merzlikins is prime for a career year. The Blue Jackets will score enough goals this year to contend.
The question now: Will Merzlikins keep enough pucks out to make it worthwhile?