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Merzlikins ready to get on the ice with Blue Jackets in Traverse City

Goaltender continues transition to North American hockey with prospects squad

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Elvis Merzlikins is ready to play his first game in union blue. 

The Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender is just happy it's taking place in September and not April. 

After he signed with the Blue Jackets this spring at the conclusion of his season with his longtime team, HC Lugano in Switzerland, Merzlikins traveled to Columbus to start the transition to North American hockey. 

In his words, it wasn't always pretty.  

"Luckily the fans didn't see me in April when I was here because I wasn't that good," he said Thursday with a grin. 

It took some work with Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace to adjust to the speed and closer quarters of NHL hockey, and Merzlikins will be the first to tell you there's still work to be done. 

But he's also excited to hit the ice this weekend as the Blue Jackets take part in the annual NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich. Columbus, the event's defending champion and all-time leader with five tourney victories, plays four games in five days starting with this afternoon's 3:30 clash against No. 2 overall draft pick Kaapo Kakko and the New York Rangers.  

FROM MARCH: Merzlikins ready to prove himself at NHL level

Both Merzlikins and Finnish goalie Veini Vehvilainen will get the chance to suit up over the weekend against the top young players in other NHL organizations ahead of the start of CBJ training camp next week. For both, each of whom was twice named the top goaltender in their respective leagues before coming to Columbus, it's an opportunity to show their stuff. 

For Merzlikins, it's a big audition. The 6-foot-3 Latvian has signed a one-way deal with Columbus and is expected to join Joonas Korpisalo as the two goalies given the first chances to replace Sergei Bobrovsky in the Columbus net. For a goalie who stood out in Switzerland and with the Latvian national team over the past few seasons, what he has previously called a "beautiful adventure" begins now.  

"I'm really excited to be here, of course," he said after Thursday's workout ahead of the team's trip to Traverse City. "It's really nice to start practice on the small rink. It's a huge difference compared to last time when I was here in April. It was a good summer. I feel really good, I had really good preparation, I think, and I'm looking forward to playing like a real hockey game on the small rink.  

"Of course I going to have to need some time to adapt. Practice is one thing, the game is completely another thing." 

NHL PROSPECTS TOURNAMENT: Roster, schedule | What to know about the CBJ team

To this point, Merzlikins has shown he has the ability to stand out with his play, not to mention his enthusiastic ways both on and off of it. In six seasons at HC Lugano, the 25-year-old went 105-79-7 while posting a 2.63 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in 210 career games. Last year, he posted his best career goals-against average, a 2.44 mark while earning a .921 save percentage and a career-high five shutouts. 

A 2014 third-round draft pick of the Jackets, he has also excelled at international play, as three times, he has been named a top three player on the Latvian team at the World Championships. 

Yet Merzlikins knows the transition will require more work. While he spent his summer making sure he was ready physically for the NHL -- there is no doubt he is in fantastic shape -- there will be mental hurdles to jump. 

Among the biggest issues he's identified -- getting used to the smaller rink and faster style of play as well as learning the habits of the elite snipers he'll be facing on a night-in, night-out basis at the NHL level.  

Work with Legace began back in April, and Merzlikins said the two have forged a strong relationship. Starting Friday, the anticipated question of how the talented netminder will fare in the NHL will start to be answered. 

"I am going to need a little bit of time to see, to understand, to get it," he said. "I'm already getting a lot of things. I'm feeling really, really, really, really better. … I did a really good job with Manny. We really talk a lot, we do a lot of video, work out really close, we have a great relationship so I'm really happy on that. I'm looking forward to seeing the challenge to myself how is the (top level)." 

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