New job, more responsibilities as they say.
When the Columbus Blue Jackets decided not to renew Manny Legace's contract as goaltending coach following the 2022-23 season, it wasn't too surprising.
Elvis Merzlikins, the netminder that the team made a long-term commitment to just prior to the 2021-22 season, had his worst season since joining the NHL in 2019-20. He was statistically one of the worst goalies in the entire league when he posted a 7-18-2 mark with a 4.23 goals-against average and a .876 save percentage.
Merzlikins had trouble staying on the ice battling injuries and illness, as did Daniil Tarasov who battled injury, but Joonas Korpisalo was able to mix together a string of successful starts before his trade to the Los Angeles Kings. Korpisalo earned his own five-year deal with the Ottawa Senators when free agency opened on July 1.
When it comes to the struggles of the Blue Jackets goaltenders last season, it's hard to say how much blame Legace should shoulder, but it was obvious a change needed to be made.
The close friendship that both Legace and Merzlikins have is well-chronicled and maybe that element was hindering Merzlikins' development to some degree. Perhaps Merzlikins is still facing difficulties stemming from the accident at Legace's house on July 4, 2021, that claimed the life of Matiss Kivlenieks in a fireworks accident.
Whatever the reasons that have led us to this point, a change was needed and Merzlikins, who has four more years remaining on his five-year extension, is critical to the Blue Jackets' success in the upcoming season.
Enter accomplished former NHL veteran goaltender Niklas Backstrom.
Backstrom served as the Blue Jackets' European-based goaltending development coach since 2019, and though he's never officially been a goaltending coach before, he's now the man in charge and responsible for getting the most out of his goaltenders.
What Do Realistic Expectations Look Like For Backstrom And His Goalies?
After Merzlikins had one of the worst seasons of any goaltender last season, the respectable bar would be a league-average year. Merzlikins doesn't have to be a Vezina candidate to be successful as long as he can do his part in keeping the opposition off the scoreboard with much more regularity.
The Blue Jackets' defense wasn't the most helpful in that regard either—more on that—but based on goals saved above expected, Merzlikins was last (-22.68, 5v5) among 111 goalies last season per Evolving-Hockey. In 17 games and 16 starts, Tarasov's GSAx was -7.32. Korpisalo had 10.79 GSAx in 28 games and 26 starts with Columbus.
What Can Success Look Like Here?
The Blue Jackets allowed 35.4 shots per game last season, the second most in the league, and 35.2 shots the season before. No matter who the goalie is, it's tough to face so many shots per game.
In order to help combat this, general manager Jarmo Kekalainen acquired Ivan Provorov from the Philadelphia Flyers and then completed the sign-and-trade for Damon Severson, who would have been among the top unrestricted free agents on the open market.
So the revamped defense should help.
A healthy Zach Werenski re-entering the lineup is also a nice boost. After being limited to just 13 games last season with a torn labrum and separated shoulder, Werenski has played in all 82 games once in his career (2018-19) and only as many as 68 games in a season (2021-22) since.
But the goaltenders still have to provide at minimum, league-average play in the crease, and after allowing a franchise-worst 329 goals last season, one of the main keys is quite obvious. Keep the puck out of the net. And stay off the injured list.
Through parts of four NHL seasons, Merzlikins shouldered the bulk of starts in 2021-22 when he made 56 starts and recorded a 27-23-7 mark with a 3.22 GAA and .907 SV%. If the defense stays healthy, that will allow Merzlikins and Co. a better opportunity for success.
Fortunately for the Jackets, Provorov played in all 82 games last season, 79 the year before, and all 56 in 2020-21. Even though he might not be quite the defensive specialist in recent years.
Severson played in 81 games last season, 80 the year before, and all 56 in 2020-21.
Damon Severson, acquired and signed 8x$6.25M by CBJ, is an analytical darling offensive defenceman with excellent passing ability whose tendency to make the occasional Big Mistake often earned him the ire of Devils fans. #CBJ pic.twitter.com/nN46AcHw1F— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) June 9, 2023
The Blue Jackets have designs on being closer to legitimate contention status with Mike Babcock behind the bench and as the team did what they could to shore up the defense, they need to see the goaltenders take a large step in the right direction if they're going to have a chance at even being .500 this season.
Will Jet Greaves Or Other Goalies Get A More Serious Look?
Currently, Merzlikins is first on the depth chart and Tarasov would be his backup. Otherwise, Tarasov has to clear waivers to return to the AHL and play for the Cleveland Monsters.
While the club would have preferred for Tarasov to have spent most of his time in Cleveland last season, struggles and injuries forced Tarasov into NHL action. And then he missed more time in Cleveland with his own injuries.
Jet Greaves made 46 saves in his NHL debut in Toronto, a Blue Jackets franchise record for a goalie making that many saves in his league debut. As The Athletic's Aaron Portzline pointed out at the time, Greaves is the ninth goaltender to make at least 45 saves in his NHL debut since the league began tracking shots on goal. The Blue Jackets lost that game to the Maple Leafs, 4-2, but Greaves' performance was headline-worthy.
Could the 22-year-old garner more action this season? Right now, that scenario is probably based on something wrong happening with either Merzlikins or Tarasov.
Maybe they look to bring in another veteran that can play games in Cleveland and the NHL if necessary. Last season, the Jackets set a franchise record with six different goaltenders appearing in games.
The goaltending being a boost would go a long way for the 2023-24 Blue Jackets. This will be one of the more curious positions to watch this season.