With two days until the Blue Jackets open the season at Nationwide Arena on Friday vs. Toronto, BlueJackets.com is counting down to the days until start of the campaign. Today we look at the two goaltenders Columbus will turn to this season to take on new roles.
Once it became official this summer that Sergei Bobrovsky, a seven-year starter and by far the most decorated goaltender in Blue Jackets history, was leaving Columbus, Joonas Korpisalo had an immediate reaction.
"When you're backing up, you're always like, 'I wish I would be the guy,' you know?" Korpisalo admitted. "Just hearing the news during the summer, I was like, 'Wow. It's going to be a blast.' I'm really excited to be here with this opportunity."
While the team's reserve for the past four seasons was excited to show his stuff as a potential No. 1 goaltender, the rest of the hockey world had a different reaction. With the departure of the two-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder, thought of as among the elite goalies in the entire world, hockey experts immediately wondered just how the Blue Jackets were going to stop pucks this year.
And Korpisalo had a reaction to those reactions.
"I don't want to curse, but I don't give a (hoot) about what everyone else thinks," Korpisalo said. "I know they don't think too well (of us), having two young goalies, but who cares? We don't think that way. I'm just happy for the opportunity and trusting our game.
"My game, if I play at my level, it's going to be more than enough to win games. That's about it."
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That confidence has to be refreshing to both the team and its fans, as Korpisalo entered training camp with a determination befitting those words. He backed them up throughout September, turning in three impressive preseason starts to go with excellent play in team scrimmages.
He'll be joined in the net to start the season by 25-year-old rookie Elvis Merzlikins, a talented prospect who has shined overseas and at the international level who could prove to be star.
On paper, the biggest question facing the Blue Jackets this year is what the team will get in net. The early returns from Korpisalo and Merzlikins in training camp were encouraging, but soon the pair of netminders will be judged not on talent and potential but on pucks stopped and games won.
Still, head coach John Tortorella seems pleased with where things are as the Blue Jackets get ready for puck drop Friday.
"I thought both goalies progressed nicely during camp," Tortorella said. "I have said about Korpi right along, he has looked solid. He has taken a lot of the extra action out of his play, I think through confidence. Elvis was kind of all over the place early on, and rightfully so. He was probably a little nervous. I think at times he looked a little overwhelmed … but as I've seen him go and I watched him play in that Buffalo game (last Wednesday), he's made tremendous strides.
"Both of them have gone about their business with everybody watching them and handled themselves very well."
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Nick Foligno says he's not sure yet how he'll celebrate wins with Korpisalo this season, but he says it with a wink and a nod that belies the captain sure has an idea cooking.
The famous embrace with Bobrovsky is no more, but Foligno hopes he'll get the chance to enjoy plenty of victories this season with a goalie he's watched mature and develop for the past four seasons.
"I think that (being the No. 1 goalie) is one thing I think he's now ready for," Foligno said. "You can never force somebody in that role, but I think he's really excited about that opportunity and he looks the part. He looks really good in practice and in games that I've seen.
"He's guy that we're all pulling for. You want to see good things happen to good people, and he's a guy that has battled his (butt) off the last few years here and been a real good pro that deserves his shot and probably will run with it."
Goaltending coach Manny Legace sees a similar side of Korpisalo. A 2012 third-round pick, Korpisalo continued playing in his native Finland for the next three seasons before coming to North America. He met Legace in the minor leagues when the NHL veteran served as the organization's AHL goalie coach, then the two reunited last year when Legace was promoted to the big-league level.
In that time, the coach has watched Korpisalo grow immensely.
"I've known (Korpi) since he's been here," Legace said. "We won a championship in Cleveland together, so I've known him for a long time. To watch him grow, especially these last two years, he's been really dialing into the technique and his game. When he first came over, it was just play and let's try to stop the puck, flying around, not really structured. Now when you listen to him talk, it's a different person. He had a great guy to learn from."
That development is part of the reason Korpisalo feels like he's ready to take the next step and take over the starter's net. He also has some history on his side, including the 2015-16 season when he posted a .920 save percentage in Bobrovsky's injury-fueled absence. On the other hand, he'll have to improve the .899 save percentage he's posted the last three years, but it's clear Korpisalo is fired up for the chance.
"Coming into camp, how can I say it -- I made sure I was super ready when I came here," he said. "Just like dialed in. If everyone sees I'm ready for the job, getting to the rink, be super professional, just take a hold of it. Don't waste any time looking around, just try to come in here and do your job and grab it."
Korpisalo's .953 save percentage in almost 150 minutes of action in the preseason, not to mention the sharp and economical way he's made saves, would seem to show he's ready.
"I feel really good," he said. "I don't think if there was anything else I can do (to win the job). Just do my best every day, and I think I've been doing that."
Elvis enters the building
Let's just start with a caveat. You've probably never met anyone like Merzlikins.
He's a rare combination of passionate and playful, an effervescent personality with no airs about him. He's direct, he's introspective, he's funny, he's genuine, and he clearly is driven by a fire to prove he belongs at the highest level.
In today's NHL, where personality can be in short supply, that might get him in trouble. It has at times in the past, such as the time at his previous club (HC Lugano in Switzerland) where he dropped the gloves -- well, glove and blocker -- and tried to fight a teammate in practice.
Of course, it's also important to point out that the two teammates were laughing and hugging a few minutes later.
"(I had heard he has) a chip on his shoulder, a big ego," Legace said. "It's not true, not even one bit. It's mistaken for competitiveness. We laugh, we joke. When we go out, he treats everybody like gold. But he's highly competitive. He's going to rub some people the wrong way because he is that highly competitive, just like Patrick Roy. He could rub people the wrong way too, but I'd rather that than a guy sitting in the corner twiddling his thumbs."
Now, the million dollar question that follows is as such -- will the Blue Jackets thus get a Patrick Roy-level of goaltending out of Merzlikins?
It might take a little time, but it's more than obvious based on some of the spectacular saves Merzlikins made during three preseason appearances that the talent and athleticism are there. But Merzlikins has also made no bones about the adjustment to North American hockey, which seems to have taken two forms.
The first is getting used to playing on the smaller rink, where shots come from any and all angles. The second is the adjustment to the higher skill level in the world's best league, as Merzlikins has had to learn that just about every player on the ice can put the puck exactly where he wants it when he wants to.
Merzlikins gave up 10 goals in his three preseason appearances, but he finished on a high note with the showing in Buffalo that impressed Tortorella, who seems to be in love with Merzlikins' competitive level.
"It takes some time," Merzlikins said after that game of his adjustment to the NHL. "It's normal. I am starting to get into feeling a little bit better in the game situations now. I think the thing is that I'm not that nervous like in the first two games. I didn't feel the hands and the legs shaking a little bit. You realize that you are in the NHL. Now I see when I get out on the rink, it is the same rink, it is just changing the colors of the seats, nothing really fancy. So I had to just adjust on these things."