The Jackets have a Goalie problem
Updated: Jan 21
COLUMBUS (OH) - As the regular season approached for the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team was full of question marks. The biggest one, how do you replace the goalie who, for the past seven years, has been one of the most dominant keepers in the league? As we approach the All-Star break, let's take a look back at how we got to where we are.
Taking over the net for the two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky was Joonas Korpisalo. Korpi was Bobs' backup since 2015 where he patiently waited his turn for the spotlight. After Bob left, he received his opportunity. In addition to Korpi, there was another goalie who the Jackets drafted in the 2014 NHL named Elvis Merzlikins. He played in Switzerland and was viewed as one of the best goalies not in the NHL, but still very much unproven.
Both goalies opened the season with a loss, Korpi falling to Toronto 4-1, and Elvis following up the next night with a 7-2 blowout in Pittsburgh. It didn't look good for either player. As the season progressed, Korpi made it clear he was the number one goalie. He finished his first ten games 5-4-1 and some of those losses were not on him. He played well enough to put the Jackets in a position to win, while Elvis continued to lose. Elvis was getting better, but that elusive first W was something he simply couldn't obtain. On top of that, the team started piling up the injuries.
Let's take a look at the current injury report. Out indefinitely as of writing is Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Murray, Alexander Texier, and Dean Kukan. The Jackets are currently without Josh Anderson (late January), and the big one, Joonas Korpialo (mid-February). Other players who have faced injuries and time out include Emil Bemstrom, Zach Werenski, Sonny Milano, Markus Nutivaarra, and Cam Atkinson.
However, during these injuries, something happened. This young team of inexperienced players from the Cleveland affiliate started to gel. It brought a renewed sense of youth to the team, and out of nowhere, they started winning. Korpi was hot. Like, really hot. His last ten games he was 6-0-3 with a .942%. He was voted into the All-Star Game, and the Jackets had all the momentum. Then, on December 29th, he was injured against the Blackhawks and Elvis came in and lost the shoot-out. Torts had some words for the refs after the game. Elvis was still winless with a record of 0-4-4 with a .889%. Then, something happened.
Elvis' first home start, on New Year's Eve, against none other than the man who had owned his net for the last seven years. The Florida Fighting Bobs came to town. The spotlight couldn't have been bigger. Coach John Tortorella said in a press conference that he believes Elvis is ready for the spotlight. That would prove to be an understatement. In that game, Elvis completely outdueled Bob giving up 1 goal on 37 shots as the Jackets defeated the Panthers 4-1.
One of the things that had become a tradition in this town was the post-game hug. Captain Nick Foligno always gave a fist bump to the players before giving the winning goalie a big old hug. Well, as the players skated off after the Panthers win, Elvis not only got his first hug, he leaped into the waiting arms of the Captain. One could almost hear the lyrics of I've Had The Time Of My Life as he did it. It was epic and Nationwide Arena erupted. That was just the beginning.
Including that special night, Elvis has gone 8-2, losing to San Jose twice. He has a staggering save percentage of .955%. His goals-against average is 1.7. In his last four games, he has three shutouts. Elvis is undoubtedly one of the hottest goalies in the league right now. The feeling in Columbus is electric. The buzz around the arena and amongst the fans is almost playoff level. Elvis is loving it and has become an absolute fan favorite. After he shut-out Vegas on their home ice, he spread his legs, used his stick as a guitar, and started strumming. At the end of both of his post-game interviews with Jody Shelley, he says the phrase "thank you, thank you very much." The first time I thought it was a coincidence. Now, it's a thing. As the chant of "Elvis, Elvis, Elvis" bounces off the walls of Nationwide, he makes sure to thank his team for their great play. He is humble, and a team player. Elvis has taken the net from Korpi, this is his net now. There's just one problem, Korpi is due back in Mid-February. What do the Jackets do?
Do you stay with the hot hand, the goalie who has electrified an entire city who has quickly become one of the best goalies in the league? Do you allow Korpi, your All-Star goaltender take back the net upon his return and run the risk of losing this momentum? Do you do a 50-50 split in order to keep the goalies rested? Time will tell, I don't envy Torts in any way. The good thing, as far as problems go, this is one of the best problems an NHL team can have.