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Blue Jackets position breakdown: Goaltenders

Korpisalo, Merzlikins to get first chances to take over between the pipes

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

At this point, if you're a Blue Jackets fan, you likely know the score between the pipes going into the 2019-20 season.  

After seven years in Columbus, Sergei Bobrovsky has left town as the most decorated goaltender in franchise history. In his place, a talented but unproven duo of netminders will step in, each with a chance to lay claim to the starting job both this season and in years to come.  

That might not be a bad thing. 

That's nothing against Bobrovsky, who was the rock of the team in the back end in past seasons. But history shows a goaltender doesn't have to have a dominant NHL track record to lead a team to the highest of levels.  

Just one season ago, a netminder named Jordan Binnington burst onto the scene in January and went from an AHL backup at the start of the season to a Stanley Cup-winning backstop with St. Louis by June. 

GOALIE PIPELINE: Jackets have plenty of prospects in net

The recent Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup runs came with a youngster named Matt Murray in net, and he was just a 21-year-old rookie with 13 NHL regular-season games under his belt when he led the Pens to the Stanley Cup in 2016. Even in 2018, longtime Caps standout Braden Holtby led Washington to the Cup, but it came during perhaps the roughest year of his career - and don't forget, it was a postseason he began on the bench. 

In other words, goaltending can be finicky. And with two talented goalies in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins expected to enter camp as the team's potential starters, the Blue Jackets feel they have a pair of goalies who can take the opportunity and run with it.  

Breaking it down: General manager Jarmo Kekalainen has expressed confidence in the two goalies the team will turn to when it comes to the first crack to replace Bobrovsky. And if anyone knows the two, it's Kekalainen, as both goalies have been with the organization for at least five seasons.  

"We feel that we have two young goaltenders that have great potential," Kekalainen said.  

Korpisalo returns for his fifth season in Columbus and will try to build on what he's done as Bobrovsky's top backup and as an occasional starter. The overall numbers scream competence but not dominance -- in his four seasons, he's played in 90 games (81 starts) with a 41-31-9 record, 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Those numbers, though, are buoyed by when he took over for an injured Bobrovsky in 2015-16 and started 30 games, going 16-11-4 with a 2.60 GAA and .920 save percentage. Over the past three seasons, the save percentage has dipped to .899.  

Video: STL@CBJ: Korpisalo stuffs Tarasenko's early breakaway

He'll get a good chance to earn the starting role, and as Kekalainen is fond of saying, many goalies have apprenticed as a No. 2 before taking a No. 1 job and running with it. Starting one of every four or five games makes it hard to get into a rhythm in net, and Korpisalo has shown strong results at times when making a run of starts, including three years ago and during this past January.  

Korpisalo will be pushed by Merzlikins, whose much-anticipated debut will finally take place after he was taken with a third-round pick in the 2014 draft. Since then, the Latvian has played for HC Lugano in Switzerland, where he twice was named the NLA's top goaltender. 

Overall, in six seasons, he posted a 2.63 GAA and .920 save percentage, including marks of 2.44 and .921, respectively, a season ago. He's also excelled with the Latvian national team at the World Championships level, thrice being named among his home country's top three players at the event while taking on some of the best players in the world. 

He should bring an athletic and aggressive style to the net, one that will be matched by his enthusiasm out of it, as Merzlikins is known for his spirited celebrations and exuberance.  

The third in-house option to start the season will be 22-year-old Veini Vehvilainen, the two-time reigning goalie of the year in Finland's Liiga who put up almost cartoonish numbers in his home country. This past season, he had a 1.58 goals-against average and .933 save percentage with Kärpät, then topped it with a 1.47 GAA and .939 save percentage in the postseason. He's just 6-foot-1, but a smaller stature hasn't hurt fellow Finnish goalie Juuse Saros, and all Vehvilainen has done in his career is stop pucks.  

Breakout potential: The ceiling could be quite high for Merzlikins, as some have referred to him as the best goalie in the world not playing in the NHL in past seasons. Still, there will be a transition to the NHL and its smaller rink for the 25-year-old, and the flair in his personality might ruffle some feathers as well. But if he can be as good as advertised when it comes to stopping the puck, Merzlikins will be a star and a fan favorite, and indications are he's pretty good at his job. How the transition goes could very well determine the course of the season for the Jackets.  

Bouncing back: OK, it might be a little unfair to put Korpisalo here, but this is the format we used for the first two positional pieces so we'll keep it going. At the same time, Korpisalo will need to get off to a better start than he did in 2018-19. Told before the season he'd get the chance to show his stuff given Bobrovsky was in the final year of his contract -- Korpisalo even started the season opener at Detroit -- the Finn was 5-1-2 in eight starts through the first two months of the season but had just a 3.73 GAA and .886 save percentage. Simply put, he'll have to have a better beginning to the upcoming campaign.  

Battle lines: Considering both Merzlikins and Korpisalo are on one-way deals, they'll likely begin the season as the goaltending duo unless something shakes things up during training camp. It's an intriguing pair, as Korpisalo has the edge in NHL experience while Merzlikins is a true wild card, someone with a high ceiling but also a potentially lower floor considering his lack of North American experience. It's too early to pick a favorite, as training camp will say a lot about the position, but the ultimate test will be how the goalies perform in games. By a month or two into the season, we should have a pretty good read on the situation, but exactly how it will shake out remains to be seen.  

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