With the NHL Draft and the start of free agency in the rearview window, the Columbus Blue Jackets organization is nearly a finished product heading into the 2022-23 season.
It's a good time to take stock of the organizational depth of the prospect pool, both from a top-down (NHL-AHL) and positional (forwards vs. defensemen vs. goalies) standpoint. Today is part three of a three-part segment where we'll examine the state of the franchise's stable of young players. Last up, the goaltenders.
For the past few years, the Blue Jackets haven't felt compelled to select a goalie in the NHL Draft. This was rationalized due to the young and promising careers of their pipeline, which at the time featured goalies like Elvis Merzlikins, Joonas Korpisalo, Anton Forsberg, Oskar Dansk, etc., all of whom were selected between 2012 and 2014, and the strength of Sergei Bobrovsky.
In each of three consecutive drafts from 2019-2021, the Blue Jackets passed on a goalie, instead choosing to flush out the defense corps and forward group. Fast forward to today, and the organization only has three prospects in goal: Daniil Tarasov, Jet Greaves, and Sergei Ivanov.
On its own, that sounds like a cause for concern, but the Blue Jackets are confident that they have the starting goalie of the present (Merzlikins) and the future (Tarasov) already in tow, meaning that a contingency plan isn't necessary - yet.
Tarasov is the organization's prized goaltending prospect, and could be in the NHL again this season if Merzlikins/Korpisalo struggle/have injuries. In four games at the NHL level last season, he posted a 0.937 save percentage. He's still seeking his first NHL win, but he showed well. At 23, he's still waivers exempt, giving the organization a ton of flexibility to send him to/from Cleveland, where he projects to be the Monsters' starter in 2022-23.
Greaves has taken a bizarre development path, and like many others, has Covid-19 to thank/blame for that. The 21-year-old was never drafted, and frankly wasn't a highly-thought-of prospect when the Blue Jackets brought him into the fold. He didn't play in a game in 2020-21, then played in 15 ECHL and 29 AHL games in 2021-22. In February, the Blue Jackets signed him to an entry-level contract, and it's likely that he'll be an AHL backup for the upcoming season. At this point, he's organizational depth with some upside.
Ivanov, 18, was taken in last month's NHL Draft in the fifth round with the 138th overall pick. In 2021, he starred for Russia at the U18 Championships, and he had a strong season this past year in Russia's top junior circuit, the MHL. The downside? He's listed at 5'11", and most NHL goalies are 6'2" or taller (for reference, Korpisalo and Merzlikins are listed at 6'3" and Tarasov at 6'5"). Still, it's a worthwhile gamble with a late-round draft pick.
The Blue Jackets have done well to drastically improve the state of their forward and defense groups over the past few drafts. While on the surface it can be tempting to point out the lack of depth in the goaltending pipeline, the truth is that goalies can be sourced from other locations with relative ease, between NCAA/European free agents, as well as other NHL organizations, as it's difficult to stash a surplus of quality goalies due to salary cap implications, waivers, opportunities, etc.
On the other hand, the Blue Jackets had better be right in their assessment of Tarasov. If he isn't the goalie of the future, I'm not sure anyone can say with confidence that that player is currently in the organization.