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Merzlikins ready to prove he can make it in NHL

Goaltender wants to show he can play in world's best league

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

For Elvis Merzlikins, signing a contract last week with the Columbus Blue Jackets was the realization of a dream he's had since he was a child. 

On the other hand, the confident 24-year-old goaltender doesn't think he's proved anything yet. 

That much the Latvian made clear when he spoke with the media Sunday for the first time since signing an entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets.  

After six seasons with HC Lugano of the Swiss NLA, and five years after he first became a member of the organization when he was taken in the third round of the NHL draft, Merzlikins is set to begin his journey in the NHL. 

But he won't be satisfied unless he makes the most of this chance. 

"Of course it was amazing (to sign)," he said. "It's the first part of a dream I've had since I was a kid that I realized, that I've reached.  

"But it's not like it's that big a deal. A lot of guys can sign a contract. The main thing that I want to see is at what level I'm at, and prove to myself and especially to my mom -- who made a huge sacrifice when I was a kid -- to prove that I can stay in the best league in the world, not just show up there." 

MORE ON MERZLIKINS: Goalie signs deal with CBJ | Jackets excited to see him play

That journey will likely begin next week when he arrives in Columbus once he procures a visa to travel to the United States from Switzerland.  

Once he arrives, he's expecting to work with Blue Jackets goaltending coach Manny Legace while getting used to the smaller ice of the North American game, the high-level skill he'll encounter, and the new city he'll be calling home after spending much of his life in Lugano. 

It will be a lot, but Merzlikins said he's ready for the transition that will occur amid the Blue Jackets' playoff push. 

"I know that I'm going to practice with Manny, and it's awesome to spend time with the goalie coach in private," he said. "It's the best practice you can have because you're calm and you can study and you can learn more and much better than on the rush before the team practices. 

"Then I'm going to see the city, the real life. I just want to see what is going to happen. Of course, I'm hoping that the guys are playing well and they can get in the playoffs and then they can go as far as they can." 

For now, it seems as though Merzlikins will not be part of that run -- on the ice during games, that is -- thanks to the presence of Sergei Bobrovsky, backup Joonas Korpisalo and trade deadline acquisition Keith Kinkaid. Those three will be the ones tasked with getting Columbus into the postseason and making the season last from there, as they have been for the past few weeks. 

But Merzlikins will arrive and get a chance to get his feet wet, and the Blue Jackets will get a better sense of what they have. So far, they have to like the pedigree of someone general manager Jarmo Kekalainen has described as "the best goaltender outside of the NHL right now." 

He's excelled in Switzerland, twice being named the NLA's top goaltender and compiling a 2.63 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in his six seasons of work. But is he ready for the NHL, where the best in the world play? 

Merzlikins says yes. And he has one game he can look back on to prove it. 

World Championship success 

After another standout season in the NLA last season, where he led Lugano to the cusp of the league championship and was named the league's outstanding goalie, Merzlikins reported to play for Team Latvia in the IIHF World Championships last May. 

He was outstanding throughout, posting a 1.50 goals-against average and .940 save percentage for a Latvian team that surprised some onlookers by making a run to the quarterfinals.  

For Merzlikins, the game he focused on going into the tournament was a May 10 showdown with the United States. In particular, he focused on stopping Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane, a two-time Olympian, three-time Stanley Cup winner and the Hart Trophy winner in 2016 as NHL MVP.  

Stopping Kane, to Merzlikins, meant he could stop anyone in the world, and he studied the NHL star for two months leading up to the game. 

"I was studying how he was playing the game, his good games, his bad games," Merzlikins said. "I wanted to see how he's playing and what are his main (skills), how smart he is." 

Merzlikins made a number of outstanding saves among his 30 stops in the game against some of the NHL's best. He denied soon-to-be teammate Cam Atkinson on a breakaway in the first period, and later denied Johnny Gaudreau all alone in front after a turnover.  

But the most meaningful saves came against No. 88. Merzlikins had two that stand out, including a right pad stop as Kane fired a wrist shot on his forehand from the right circle in the second period after a turnover. Then, with his team killing a penalty late in a 2-2 game, Merzlikins stood toe-to-toe with a Kane slap shot and made the stop, then reached behind him to cover the puck in the crease after it climbed over his pad. 

Atkinson eventually won the game early in overtime for the U.S., but to Merzlikins, the test was passed.  

"It was the most important thing to not get scored on by Kane," the goalie said. "After that game, I saw that I am ready and I can jump over there and play that hockey." 

Though Latvia would also take Canada to overtime in the group stage and then lost a tight 3-2 quarterfinal to Sweden, the game against Team USA continues to stand out. Merzlikins is also not afraid to admit he turned to a bit of gamesmanship to try to keep his team in it. 

"Let's be clear guys, you are Americans, we are Latvia. What was the chance we were going to win that game, honestly?" he said Sunday. "That game I had to cheat, I had to be smarter. I remember a little slash I got on my catcher, I would start screaming. The referees are my friends and they got two minutes, so at least they gave a power play to my team, a little chance to score.  

"Another time, I did the same thing, and I don't remember who the player was, but he wanted to fight me. I said, 'All right, if you want to go, let's go, but not now because I can't go right now.' If I have to leave, the other goalie has to come in and we're probably going to lose -- not because I leave, but it's not easy to get in the game right away (for a goalie).  

"Then after the game, when we shake hands, I told, I think it was Kinkaid (who was on Team USA), 'Man, look at my team, look at your team. You have superstars on your team. I have one player who is playing in the NHL. What am I going to do?'" 

An engaging personality 

If there's anything fans have heard about Merzlikins, it's that he has confidence and personality in spades. As the above answer illustrates, he's not afraid to approach things unconventionally and he honest about it, something Kekalainen doesn't expect to be a problem as he arrives in the U.S. 

"He's got a strong personality, but he's also fit in with teams in Switzerland and with Team Latvia, so he knows what it takes to be a team player," the Columbus GM says. "His big personality will have to fit in with the Blue Jackets, but we welcome all different types of players as long as they fit in with the team concept and structure and culture." 

He did that in spades in Lugano, where he was something of a cult figure. Because he spent part of his youth in the city and then worked his way into become a professional through the team's youth system, he was known to everyone in the lakefront city near the Italian border. His success and those of the team were celebrated by all.  

"I got respect from the city from all the seasons I played there and because I grew up there," he said, "so fans really loved me because they saw me when I was a kid. Everyone, even the guy who is cleaning the rink or the guy (who drives the) Zamboni, he knew he from when I was a kid and I was all the time doing some bad stuff in the rink and he was screaming at me. It's like he was family. He knows me, he saw me grow up and saw me reaching something special like I did.  

"This was a huge family. To say goodbye to them was kind of painful." 

Will Merzlikins be able to build a similar connection to Columbus. Time will tell, of course, though Merzlikins speaks glowingly of the previous times he was in the city for development camps. 

As for those wondering what to expect, Merzlikins had an interesting answer. 

"I am not like a normal goalie," he said. "I think I am crazy and a little bit different than other goalies, right? There are people who say goalies are special and are living in their own world. Yes (they are). I am kind of that, but sometimes ... I am more the guy who is (having) fun, who is joking, but of course I know when it's time for business, it's time for business. I'm serious about that and nothing can change that. I would love to have a good relationship with Columbus fans.  

"In the past when I was in development camps, I saw a couple of fans and I think they are awesome there in Columbus. I never had the chance to see how they are during the games, but it's going to be fun to see that. The people who I met there in America, I really like them because they are really lovely, and they are there to help you, for sure not to hurt you. It's going to be a cool experience." 

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