For years, the Columbus Blue Jackets bread and butter was their goaltending. Sergei Bobrovsky, year after year, was written in stone as the number one netminder for a competitive (though never dominant) franchise.
Five All-Star appearances and two Vezina Trophy’s later, the top cop between the pipes flew south for the next decade when Bobrovsky signed a 10-year contract with the Florida Panthers in the summer of 2019.
Since then, the Blue Jackets goaltending situation has ranged from steady to chaotic. After Bobrovsky left, Joonas Korpisalo had first crack at the starting job and was so impressive in the first half of the season that he was named an All-Star for the only time in his career. A torn meniscus in the final days of the 2019 calendar year (in a shootout that arguably never should have happened) sidelined Bobrovsky for nearly two months, and he played in just five games before the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in the 2019-20 season.
When Korpisalo went down, it was rookie Elvis Merzlikins’ turn. He was wildly inconsistent in a handful of appearances as the backup — he lost his first seven starts — but dazzled in January and February of 2020. In just 31 starts, Merzlikins finished fifth in both the Calder and Vezina voting, for Rookie of the Year and Goaltender of the Year, respectively.
But since the end of that 2019-20 season — one that ended in Toronto in August of 2020 when play resumed in a bubble — the Blue Jackets goaltending situation has been somewhere between not good and really bad.
Everything from here out gets a preface: the defense has been far below average for the last three seasons. In front of even an average defense, all stats and names below likely would have been better. But blaming the blue line can only be taken so far; ultimately, a goalie has to be held accountable for the shots that they have an opportunity to prevent from going into the net.
That hasn’t happened with consistency or confidence in a while, and as the Blue Jackets have slowly become a team that is showcasing an ability to put up goals in bunches, it’s now a matter of keeping the puck out of the net that stands in the way between a pretender and a contender.
This all brings to the table a pair of questions that may not have an answer for quite some time.
Which goalie gives the Blue Jackets the best chance to win today, and which goalie is the long-term solution for Columbus as they dig out of a reset?
There are three options, as things stand now. Korpisalo and Merzlikins, as well as 23-year-old rookie Daniil Tarasov.
Heading into this season, the expectation was that Korpisalo’s one-year contract extension for this season would be his last with the Blue Jackets. He had career lows in a limited 22 games with Columbus last season, including an .877 save percentage, a 4.15 goals against average; both were dead last of the 61 goaltenders with 20 more appearances. And, while it may sound weird for a goalie who’s in his 8th season with the team, there is a question of longevity with Korpi, as well. He’s never played in more than 37 games in a season, and never started more than 35. A fair question to ask is whether Korpisalo, talent aside, has the stamina and health to be a number one goalie for an entire season.
But the biggest reason Korpisalo was assumed to be an extended rental was that the Blue Jackets had just signed Merzlikins to a five-year, $27 million dollar deal that kicked in at the beginning of this season. By no means was Merzlikins stellar in the 2021-22 season, but he was significantly better than Korpi. In 59 games, Merzlikins posted a 3.22 goals against average to pair with a save percentage of .907. Particularly in front of an inexperienced defense, this was viewed as a decent season. His expected goals against was at 3.29, so he actually outperformed what the analytics suggested. Korpisalo, meanwhile, had an xGAA of 3.45. In other words, the details suggest that the two should have had a similar goals against average. They did not.
This season, though, has presented a slew of unexpected results. Merzlikins was open over the summer in discussing the tough times he had emotionally throughout the year. The thought was that he would have a return to his 2019-20 and 2020-21 forms, where he posted goals against averages of 2.35 and 2.77 to go with save percentages of .923 and .916.
But that has not happened, and in fact, his current numbers are eye-opening for all of the wrong reasons. His 4.74 goals against ranks 63rd of 63 goalies with five or more appearances. So does his .864 save percentage. So does his -1.70 difference between his actual goals against and the xGA of 3.04.
Yes, this is in front of a battered defense. But Korpisalo’s numbers this season, in a difference of just three games, are much better: a 4.16 goals against (58th), an .897 save percentage (42nd), and with an xGA of 4.29, his +0.13 difference between GA and xGA ranks above average, at 27th of 63.
Enter Tarasov. After a hip injury sidelined him just four games into his rookie season last year, Tarasov — in the same number of games played as Korpisalo this season — sits at a 3.46 goals against and a .906 save percentage. Neither number can be confused with impressive, but both are the best of the three netminders this season. Consider this, too: four of Tarasov’s five starts have come against the following teams: Carolina, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers, and the Florida Panthers. That’s stiff competition. The fifth start, an awkward 6-3 loss to the Arizona Coyotes on home ice, gives reason for pause — but not enough to completely jump ship.
With the Blue Jackets so battered with injuries this year and off to a slow start, the question regarding who the top goaltender is for this season doesn’t seem as significant as the question of who the best long-term solution is. But, it’s cyclical: the best long-term solution could be answered by who impresses most this season.
Korpisalo is often thought of as the “oldest” goalie, and thus more dispensable, but keep in mind that the oldest of the three is actually (by just a couple of weeks) Merzlikins. Both are 28, and could conceivably be the starter for the next five years or more, if deserved.
Merzlikins’ contract could make him hard to move for at least the next couple of seasons, but that only becomes an issue if he doesn’t turn things around. There’s no reason to believe that, at some point (especially with a better defense), the 5th Line won’t see a return to his previous self.
Then there’s Tarasov. A half decade younger than the other options and under contract through the 2024-25 season at a cap hit of just over one million per year. He’s got the highest ceiling of the three, but his lack of time in the NHL also makes him the biggest question mark.
There is no right or wrong answer to either question — yet. The best option for this season is likely whoever has the hottest hand (or, the way this season has gone, whoever isn’t the coldest hand). No one in the organization would admit to it, but if the team finds itself near the bottom of the standings at the midpoint of the season, there might be a Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli up for grabs that is worth losing for. That could be a secret factor in determining what the Blue Jackets decide to do.
As for beyond this season? Time will tell, but it feels like it’s a two-man race between Merzlikins and Tarasov. Teams rarely sign a pending unrestricted free agent like Korpisalo to a one-year deal, only to turn around and sign him to a longer-term deal the next season — especially when so much money has already been committed to a player of the same position.
From there, it’s a matter of which goalie wants it more. Sometimes the most complex answers have the easiest answers.