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Blue Jackets goalies get a crash course in Traverse City

Merzlikins, Vehvilainen learn a lot from their first experience on the smaller rink

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

Elvis Merzlikins' welcome to North American hockey moment might have happened in the first period of the Blue Jackets' first game at the NHL Prospects Tournament when a sharp-angle shot by the New York Rangers surprised him and snuck into the net.   

For Veini Vehvilainen, the welcome to the NHL moment might have happened while sitting on the bench watching Merzlikins backstop the team.  

"After the game, (Vehvilainen) pulled me aside and he goes, 'That (game) was very fast,'" Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace said. "I said, 'Wait til (training camp), it's going to get a lot faster.' He goes, 'Oh boy.' 

"I said, 'That's OK. That's why we're here. This is why they have rookie camp -- so the Europeans can get used to the small ice where everything is on top of you.'" 

The lessons came fast -- literally -- and furious as the Blue Jackets played four games in five days at the prospects camp in Traverse City. Nowhere were they more notable than in net, where the Blue Jackets will be counting on Merzlikins and perhaps Vehvilainen in 2019-20. 

With the offseason departure of Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets have a league-low 90 career NHL starts of experience between the pipes in the entire organization -- and all of them belong to Joonas Korpisalo, Bobrovsky's backup the past four seasons.  

Merzlikins, who has signed a one-way contract with the Blue Jackets after a distinguished career in Switzerland, and Vehvilainen, who dominated the Finnish Liiga the past two seasons, are coming from the bigger rinks of Europe and must adjust quickly. 

Legace doesn't seem too concerned, but it is a process. In European hockey, the extra room means more time -- for both shooters and goalies. As a result, skaters take their time and try to find the exact right play; oftentimes that means stretching the play one direction and then reversing the puck to the back side in an effort to take advantage of the extra space. 

In the NHL, meanwhile, pucks come from any and all directions -- as Merzlikins learned in both of his starts in Traverse City, as he was beaten by a sharp-angle shot in each game.  

"(Merzlikins) said, 'He threw a backhand at me,'" Legace recalled of the goal that beat him in the first game off the stick of Rangers forward Brett Kemp. "I said, "Get ready, they all do it and they all do it very well. If you can stay more aggressive on him, that should have hit you right in the chest.' 

"He said, 'I thought I had more time because when a guy leaves the boards back there, I have time.' When a guy leaves the boards here, he can score. The way all these guys shoot the puck now, they can zip it by your ear in a hurry. If you're not aggressive to a degree, they can hurt you." 

For Merzlikins, there was a lesson to be learned in the moment, something he recognized after the Rangers game. Legace wasn't going to let him forget it, either. The morning after the game against the Rangers, Legace set up a camera in one corner of the rink after practice and had Jackets skaters Nikita Korostelev and Maxime Fortier advance on Merzlikins to try to score from along the goal line.  

After that, Legace moved the camera to the other corner and spent about 10 minutes himself trying to score on Merzlikins. The few times he did, Legace responded with an exaggerated celebration, and the goalie and his coach finished the laughter-filled practice session with a hug. 

The lessons? 

"You have to be in your position all the time," Merzlikins said. "I was in my position (vs. the Rangers' Kemp), but in Europe that player will go behind the net. He wouldn't shoot it. This is good it happened so I learned something -- 'Elvis, you are an NHLer, the shots are coming from everywhere.' 

"In Europe, nobody is going to shoot from that spot. Here, with the smaller rink, the players have to shoot right away. This is good stuff that I learned and can be alert about." 

Over the four games in Traverse City, both Merzlikins and Vehvilainen had their ups and downs. After earning the win in the first game of the tournament, Merzlikins took the loss in the third game against Dallas when he gave up four goals, three of which came on the power play. Vehvilainen, meanwhile, won a pair of overtime games against prospects from Minnesota and Toronto. Merzlikins finished with a goals-against average of 3.02 with a .889 save percentage; Vehvilainen was at 2.81 and .893. 

Both goalies also made their fair share of excellent saves as well. Merzlikins had probably the stop of the tournament against the Rangers with an athletic glove save, while Vehvilainen faced a number of shots from close range but used expert positioning and a quick glove a number of times to keep the opposition off the board. 

"It felt very comfortable to me," Vehvilainen said after his initial start. "I don't know. I was a little bit surprised it felt so good. I think it's kind of more fun to play (on the smaller rink). It was very interesting." 

The education of each goalie will continue into training camp as well as the regular season. Merzlikins says he's making progress on a day-by-day basis when it comes to dealing with the speed of the game and the angles of the shots, and Legace is excited to help shepherd him through the transition.  

"It's all about getting used to the small ice," Legace said of the transition for Merzlikins. "That's why he's up here, to play as many games as he can before the season and start realizing that there is no more time (on the ice). When he plays on the big ice, guys have time and they almost try to make the perfect play every time. Here, they're just throwing pucks at the net.  

"On the first goal, the guy threw a backhand from a place people don't throw backhands (in Europe). They do here. Sidney Crosby practices it, so you better get used to it or it's going to be off your head and in. It's just making adjustments of figuring out where his game is, how to play the angles, where he can attack. It's refining it now to the small ice and changing his game to it." 

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