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Blue Jackets excited to add Merzlikins to fold

Goaltender drafted in 2014 signed contract earlier this week

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

For the first time, Elvis Merzlikins' name appeared on an NHL lineup sheet Thursday night. 

That, in and of itself, is progress. While the goaltender wasn't in Edmonton and was thus a healthy scratch - and could very well stay that way for the rest of the season - he's now officially a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

One of the most intriguing members of the organization since he was chosen in the third round of the 2014 draft, Merzlikins comes to Columbus with big numbers, big hype and a big personality after being signed to an entry-level deal Wednesday at the conclusion of his season in Switzerland. 

Where the road will go remains to be seen, but it should be an interesting one as Merzlikins now figures to be a factor in the team's goaltending plans going forward. 

"We're excited that Elvis has signed and become a Blue Jacket," Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told BlueJackets.com. "Now we're just waiting for the next stage, for him to come over to North America and start playing over here. It might take until next year, but we have been patient all along, so we can be patient a little while longer." 

Merzlikins, a star in the Swiss NLA league with HC Lugano and at the world championships in past seasons, will join a crowded goaltenders room in Columbus when he does arrive after immigration paperwork is figured out. 

As a full contract player, he cannot be transferred to Cleveland, Columbus' top farm team, because he was not on the AHL roster at the time of the trade deadline. Thus, he will report to Columbus as the fourth goaltender on a team already boasting Sergei Bobrovsky, Joonas Korpisalo and Keith Kinkaid. 

In other words, he likely won't play anytime soon -- though anything can of course happen -- but he will get a chance to start working with goaltending coach Manny Legace and get his feet wet in Columbus.  

He'll also start the transition process from playing in Europe, which has a wider rink than North American hockey, to the more fast-paced but tighter confines of the NHL.  

"Every individual is different, but it's a different game over here and it's a different rink," Kekalainen said. "The best shooters in the world play in the NHL, so it is going to be a challenge, but I'm sure he'll be up for it." 

If any goalie figures to be, it is Merzlikins. The Latvian spent part of his childhood in Lugano and then joined the pro team in 2013-14 after a few seasons with the team's youth program. He's been a mainstay with Lugano, twice being named the NLA's top goaltender and compiling a 105-79-7 record with a 2.63 goals-against average, .920 save percentage and 15 shutouts in 210 career games. In 2017-18, he helped the team to the doorstep of the league championship, and this past season, he had career best numbers as a starter with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage.  

He's also shined at the international level, as he's been a mainstay on Latvian youth teams as a younger goalie and then finally at the world championships. He's played on Team Latvia at the past three world championships, posting a 1.50 GAA and .940 save percentage last spring. That includes a game vs. the United States in which Cam Atkinson scored the overtime winner. 

"That was the first time I've seen him play," Atkinson said. "It seems like he's a damn good goalie." 

Kekalainen said such experience will help Merzlikins make the transition to the NHL, but it will be a transition nonetheless. 

"He's faced NHL shooters (at the worlds), but it's in a bigger rink, a different tournament, a different intensity level from the NHL and all that," the general manager said. "It's different hockey when you play in the big rink in the world championships. NHL hockey is different because of the small rink and the style of play, and that's what he'll have to get used to.  

"He's played against top players in the world at the international level, and there's some quality shooters in the Swiss league as well, so it's not like he hasn't played high-level hockey. Now he's going to have to face the best goal scorers in the world on a regular basis." 

But Merzlikins has been waiting for this opportunity and preparing for it for years now. Over the past few seasons, while working with goaltending coach Michael Lawrence, he's worked on developing a narrower stance that allows him to make the most of his athletic 6-foot-3 frame.  

Now 24, he's also gained valuable experience in the net, including the best way to focus his considerable fire toward making the team better. The ultimate test, though, for an goaltender begins now. 

"He's big, he's very athletic, he's quick, he's very competitive, and he's had good results as far as wins and save percentage and all of those things," Kekalainen said. "He's been named the best goaltender in the world (at the world championships) and the best goaltender in Switzerland, and so he's won a lot, he's had a very high save percentage and he's competed on the highest level outside of North America. 

"Now he's going to face the next challenge, which is the toughest challenge in pro hockey -- playing in the NHL." 

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