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The future is now: Strong goalie pipeline set to pay off for Blue Jackets

Korpisalo, Merzlikins highlight deep group of young talent for Columbus

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

There's no getting around it -- the 2019-20 season will have a different feel for the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

The man who has been the team's rock in net, Sergei Bobrovsky, is no longer around after having signed a long-term deal with Florida. 

After Bobrovsky's seven seasons in net, 369 regular-season starts, two Vezina Trophy wins and four postseason appearances, Columbus must go a different direction between the pipes. 

There is good news, though. With a pipeline of goaltenders that currently runs six deep, the Blue Jackets appear to have a bright future at the position.  

"(Goaltending coach) Manny (Legace) and I are blessed," team goaltending development coach Jim Corsi said. "This organization has some really good depth. There's some really good talent. It's really a horn of plenty, and that creates options for the organization. I don't know what the depth is in the other organizations, but for us, it's really deep." 

The way Corsi sees it, the Blue Jackets have a lot of talent at the NHL level and in the prospect pool, leaving the position in good hands going forward. 

One man who agrees is Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who has pointed to the depth in net as an organizational strength in recent years. Kekalainen has said he plans to go into this season with Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins competing to start for the Blue Jackets, with standout young Finn Veini Vehvilainen also in the discussion. 

The trio is unproven, but at this time a year ago, no one expected St. Louis' Jordan Binnington to be the backbone of a Stanley Cup run, either. 

"I'm sure (our goaltending situation) can qualify as a question mark, but at the same time, St. Louis won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender that was a No. 2 in the American (Hockey) League at this time a year ago," Kekalainen said. "We feel that we have two young goaltenders that have great potential." 

Here's a look at each of the goalies in the pipeline and what Blue Jackets fans can expect from those netminders. 

The present 

Joonas Korpisalo 

Age: 25 

2018-19 team: Columbus 

Projected 2019-20 team: Columbus 

Bio: The team's backup the past four seasons, Korpisalo hopes to settle into the starter's role in 2019-20. The Finnish netminder has played in 90 games with the team, posting a 41-31-9 record, 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage across his career, including a 10-7-3 mark, 2.95 GAA and .897 save percentage last season. He has played his best over the years when the starter's net appears to be his, including when Bobrovsky was hurt in 2015-16 and at midseason a year ago. Korpisalo has shown flashes of being starter's material amid some inconsistent performances while filling the hardest role in hockey, that of a backup goalie.  

Quote: "When he played the stretches when he got a consistent No. 1 role when Bob was hurt, (he) was a .920 save percentage through that stretch. He's a very talented young goalie. Now he's going to get an opportunity (to show) that he can be a No. 1." -- Kekalainen 

Elvis Merzlikins 

Age: 25 

2018-19 team: HC Lugano (Switzerland) 

Projected 2019-20 team: Columbus 

Bio: A third-round pick of the Blue Jackets in 2014, the Latvian finally will make his much-anticipated North American debut this season. He twice was named the top goaltender in Switzerland's NLA, where he had a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage a year ago. Merzlikins also has been a standout for the Latvian national team for the past few seasons, with some calling him the top goaltender in the world who hasn't been playing in the NHL. His passionate style of play precedes him, as the big, athletic Merzlikins boasts an enthusiasm for hockey that will make him a fan favorite if he excels upon arrival. 

Quote: "Elvis Merzlikins is a very, very talented goalie who has been excellent in Europe and in the World Championships playing against NHL players. Now let's see if he can do it in the NHL." -- Kekalainen 

The darkhorse 

Veini Vehvilainen 

Age: 22 

2018-19 team: Kärpät (Finland) 

Projected 2019-20 team: Cleveland (AHL) 

Bio: Vehvilainen heads across the pond to North America with nothing left to prove in Finland, where he has been named the top goaltender in his home country's Liiga each of the past two seasons. His numbers there were borderline ridiculous, including a 1.89 GAA two seasons ago, a 1.58 mark (and .933 save percentage) last year and a 1.47 mark during the 2019 postseason. At 6-foot-1, Vehvilainen isn't the biggest goaltender, but that hasn't stopped fellow countryman Juuse Saros from becoming an excellent netminder at the NHL level. 

Quote: "He's dominated the Finnish league, and goaltenders coming out of Finland have great schooling, great teaching. He's a guy that has dominated. He's even played in the World Championships on the national team, won a gold medal." -- Corsi 

The kid 

Matiss Kivlenieks 

Age: 22 

2018-19 team: Cleveland (AHL) and Kalamazoo (ECHL) 

Projected 2019-20 team: Cleveland (AHL) 

Bio: The Blue Jackets signed Kivlenieks two summers ago after the Latvian dominated the USHL, where he was named not just the junior league's top goalie but its MVP after he finished with a 1.85 GAA and .932 save percentage with Sioux City. Since then, he's had a pair of seasons that didn't quite go as planned. Injuries with the Monsters pushed him into the starter's role in his first pro season, giving him a trial by fire in which he had a 3.21 GAA. Last year, it was Kivlenieks who was injured for much of the season, and though he struggled with a 3.71 GAA in Cleveland, he regained some confidence and form with a late-season trip to the ECHL. 

Quote: "Kivvy has been an up-and-down kind of guy. He came from juniors, played in the American League, which is a tough place to gain confidence. He has all the skill and quickness of a top-notch goaltender. With time, he'll become a high-end guy." -- Corsi 

The future 

Daniil Tarasov 

Age: 20 

2018-19 team: Toros Neftekamsk (VHL) and Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL) 

Projected 2019-20 team: Ässät (Finland) 

Bio: Tarasov might have the highest ceiling of the bunch, as the young Russian was chosen with a third-round pick in the 2017 draft as the Blue Jackets showed faith in his talents despite a major knee injury. So far, it has paid off, as the 6-foot-4 Tarasov looks the part of a future NHL starter. A year ago, he was excellent (1.71 GAA/.928 save percentage) in Russia's second division, played on the Russian World Juniors team and even made two appearances at the KHL level. This year, he'll get more seasoning as he has moved to Finland with an eye on becoming a full-time starter.  

Quote: "He's athletic, he's fast, he reads the game well, and he has had great teaching. His dad was a top-flight KHL goaltender, and he comes with all the skill-set that you need at this level. And he's big. He's 6-5 and moves like a guy like Bobrovsky. My neck is sore from talking to him." -- Corsi 

Peter Thome 

Age: 22 

2018-19 team: University of North Dakota  

Projected 2019-20 team: University of North Dakota 

Bio: A sixth-round pick in the 2016 draft, the Minneapolis native boasts great size at 6-foot-4 but needs a bounce-back season. Thome had a solid freshman campaign at UND and hoped to emerge as the starter for the college power a season ago, but instead injuries and early struggles made it a tough go. He did finish strong, regaining the starter's net by the end of the season and giving up just 17 goals in his last eight starts.  

Quote: "He has great size. He has possibilities but he's still young. He's playing the college game, and I think camps (like the CBJ development camp) are really helpful for him to get to another level." -- Corsi 

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