What are reasonable expectations for the Blue Jackets' goalies?
A lot of that could hinge on what Niklas Backstrom has to say and do as the new goaltending coach for the club.
With training camp and pre-season underway ahead of the 2023-24 season, everyone is eager to turn the page. Elvis Merzlikins is one candidate who would probably like to erase all of 2022-23 and channel the Merzlikins we saw in seasons prior.
A critical season for the 29-year-old Latvian, Merzlikins enters the second of a five-year contract extension that pays him an annual average value of $5.4 million through 2026-27.
Merzlikins is entering his fifth NHL season, all with the Blue Jackets, where he has a career ledger of 55-62-22 across 137 starts and 150 games. He has a 3.13 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.
Tis but one scrimmage, but Elvis Merzlikins goes 30 minutes in net today without giving up a goal. He looked quite good, too. Calm, square, under control. #CBJ— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) September 22, 2023
The Blue Jackets bolstered their defense with the additions of Damon Severson and Ivan Provorov this summer. Zach Werenski is healthy and ready to get to work. David Jiricek is a candidate to make the team out of training camp.
#CBJ defenseman Zach Werenski said he feels good health-wise going into the year after missing much of last season. Said it almost feels like his rookie season, its been so long since hes been out there on the ice. pic.twitter.com/SzqbNmR2or— Jeff Svoboda (@JacketsInsider) September 18, 2023
One way to protect the goaltending is being more organized in the defensive zone. Embattled and now-former head coach Mike Babcock mentioned that as detailed in Three Questions about Daniil Tarasov. Pascal Vincent acknowledged the three central tenets of what he's expecting to see this season from his team.
Here are the three main tenets of what #CBJ coach Pascal Vincent wants to see:— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) September 22, 2023
1) Track better in all zones, all 5 skaters, backcheck hard, have better gaps
2) Attack & protect the slot areas
3) Improve O-zone possession time
Vincent: "I want this to become our DNA."
Vincent also said hes more of an offensive-minded coach who feels the true importance of having strong defensive play is to increase the amount of time youre on offense.— Brian Hedger (@BrianHedger) September 22, 2023
Also looking to play defense via puck possession in the offensive zone.#CBJ
Tarasov comes into the season as the presumed backup behind Merzlikins and is already dealing with a knee issue (day-to-day). Injuries have been an issue for Tarasov and Merzlikins over the past few years. Last season, Tarasov was 4-11-1, 3.91, and .892 for the Jackets in 16 starts.
If Merzlikins is healthy and can come close to his 2021-22 campaign when he had numbers like his 27-23-7 record in 56 starts, 3.22 GAA, and a .907 SV%, that might still feel underwhelming but would be a push in the right direction after last season's 7-18-2, 4.23 and .876.
Aaron Dell was brought in on a PTO and could be a backup option. He's made 17 starts over the last three seasons across the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and San Jose Sharks. He went 2-16-1, 3.82, and .887.
The Blue Jackets started a franchise record six different goaltenders last season: Merzlikins, Tarasov, Joonas Korpisalo, Michael Hutchinson, Jon Gillies, and Jet Greaves.
As a team, the Jackets surrendered a franchise-high 329 goals after allowing a then-franchise mark of 297 goals the season prior. Last season, Columbus allowed 4.01 goals per game and allowed 35.4 shots per game, both second worst in the league behind the Anaheim Ducks.
Cleaning this up and making things easier for the goalie will help if the Blue Jackets can effectively apply Vincent's fixes he has in store.
Korpisalo parlayed his best NHL season to date last season with Columbus and the Los Angeles Kings into a five-year deal with the Ottawa Senators to be their No. 1 goalie.
Korpisalo had the same shaky defense with Columbus in front and posted reasonable numbers.
Joonas Korpisalo with Columbus in 2022-23
- 3.17 GAA
- .913 SV%
With the Kings in 11 starts, he was 7-3-1, 2.13, .921. The Kings' defense was much better than Columbus', but Korpisalo put together sterling performances in the net on most nights.
Confidence in the play in front probably had to help with that, and if Merzlikins and Tarasov can play with a semblance of better structure from within the net but also from the defense in front, that can help their confidence.
During Sunday's nightcap of the pre-season against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Merzlikins allowed three goals on 21 shots through two periods. Pavel Cajan played the third period and overtime as the Blue Jackets skated away with the 4-3 win. Cajan stopped all eight shots he faced.
In the Jackets' 3-2 shootout loss to the Penguins in the first of the doubleheader on Sunday afternoon, Dell stopped all 11 shots he faced, and Greaves stopped 15 of 17.
The Jackets are at the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET. Dell and Greaves will be on the roster for that game.