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Prospect Report: Blue Jackets' goalie pipeline continues to look good

Netminders have been strong at every level for Columbus this season

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider /

If we've learned anything about the future of the Blue Jackets this season, it's that the goaltending pipeline is likely in good hands for years to come. 

Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, both 25 years old, have taken their turns starring in the Blue Jackets net. Matiss Kivlenieks has only been deputized once to take over the crease but was impressive in his lone start, earning the win last Sunday night in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. 

Kivlenieks has also righted his ship at the AHL level this season, a spot where European import Veini Vehvilainen has shown he has the game to translate to North American hockey. Both look like players who could be counted on for years to come. 

Then there's perhaps the most talented prospect in the bunch, Russian netminder Daniil Tarasov, who boasts great athleticism and size and is turning in a solid season in Finland's top league at the age of 20. 

Add it all up and it looks like, in the first season since Sergei Bobrovsky left the team to try free-agent waters, that the team has more than enough talent in the goaltending pipeline going forward. 

You can never have too much, though, considering the volatility of the position and just how important it is to the team cause. As the old saying goes, goaltending is 50 percent of the game -- unless you don't have it, then it's 100 percent. 

CBJ PROSPECT BREAKDOWNS: Forwards | Defensemen

Right now, the Blue Jackets have it, and the success goes beyond Korpisalo and Merzlikins. Each has warmed up to new roles as the season has progressed, with first Korpisalo turning heads across the league while earning an All-Star bid before Merzlikins' almost fairytale stretch in Korpisalo's absence with a knee injury. In the last 22 games before the break, a run in which Columbus went 16-2-4, the two started 21 games -- Korpisalo nine, Merzlikins 12 -- and combined to allow just 37 goals and post a save percentage of .944. 

The other goalie to see time in that span was Kivlenieks, who was brought up from Cleveland to serve as Merzlikins' backup when Korpisalo went down. It's been a long road to the top for the Latvian who moved to the United States at age 17 to chase his dream, with the past two seasons at the AHL level not exactly going according to plan. 

But Kivlenieks' athleticism and talent have always intrigued the Blue Jackets' organization, and the 23-year-old signed three summers ago as a free agent has the character and mentality to overcome his early pro ups and downs to make it. He's posted the best AHL numbers of his career to this point, with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage.  

He's been matched at the AHL level by Veini Vehvilainen, the 22-year-old Finn who was chosen in the sixth round of the 2018 draft by Columbus. Vehvilainen came to North American with fantastic credentials -- he posted goals-against averages of 1.89 and 1.58 the past two seasons while twice being named the Finnish Liiga's top goalie with Kärpät -- and has done little to dull the excitement around his game. 

Vehvilainen has played 23 games thus far and been one of the AHL's top netminders for much of the season, posting a 2.55 GAA and .907 save percentage. He also has a pair of shutouts, though his numbers have dipped a bit since Kivlenieks' recall to Columbus. Though he's just 6-foot-0, on the short end of goalies these days at the top level, his excellent footwork, positioning, rebound control and battle level have made him a success at every stop to this point. 

Looking overseas, the best prospect in the long term could be Tarasov, who has all the physical tools to be a standout at the game's highest levels. Still just 20, the 6-foot-4 Russian who was taken in the third round of the 2017 draft is playing with Ässät in Finland this year, and though the Aces have struggled, Tarasov has posted a 2.61 goals-against average and .903 save percentage in 30 games.  

The Blue Jackets also own the rights of Peter Thome, who was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft and plays at the University of North Dakota. The junior has found playing time hard to come by this year, as Adam Scheel has emerged as the top option in net for the second-ranked Fighting Hawks, though Thome has started a pair of wins in the past two weekends.  

On the season, Thome has played in four games and started just those two, going 2-0-1 with a 1.89 GAA and .895 save percentage. At 6-foot-4, the 22-year-old Thome has elite size but is still raw and has played just 30 games in three seasons at UND.  

Monsters win two over weekend: The longest homestand of the year for Cleveland began Wednesday, with the Monsters then earning a pair of big wins over the weekend in front of big crowds at downtown's Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. 

The Wednesday game was a bit of a downer, though, as Cleveland dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to visiting Rochester. Cleveland did rally from a 2-0 deficit, though, as goals from Ryan MacInnis and Marko Dano knotted the score before the Americans won in OT. Vehvilainen got the start and made 25 saves, while MacInnis and Dano each had a goal and an assist. 

The Monsters righted the ship over the weekend though with a pair of wins. Friday night, with a crowd of 12,255 in the downtown Cleveland arena, the team got off to a quick 2-0 lead and carried it home, earning a 5-2 victory over visiting Toronto. Defenseman Dillon Simpson got on the board twice in the first 3:37 to give him eight goals on the year, Trey Fix-Wolansky made it a 3-1 game in the second before Paul Bittner and Derek Barach scored empty-net goals to ice the game. Kivlenieks made 35 saves. 

Cleveland backed up the win with another victory on Saturday afternoon in a wild game in front of 9,417 fans. Toronto built a 3-1 lead in the first period with three goals in a minute's time, leading to Vehvilainen being pulled for Kivlenieks, but the Monsters battled back to take a 4-3 lead in the third then won 5-4 in overtime on Stefan Matteau's 3-on-3 goal. 

New Albany native Kole Sherwood scored twice, while Matteau had a goal and an assist and both Fix-Wolansky and Barach ran their goal streaks to two games. Kivlenieks made 29 saves on 30 shots in relief of Vehvilainen, who finished with seven saves on 10 shots. 

Watch: Cleveland rallies to beat Toronto 5-4 on Saturday 

The Monsters remain in last place of eight teams in the AHL's North Division with a 20-20-2-2 record, as every team in the division has at least a .500 points percentage. With 44 points, Cleveland is just five behind fourth-place Laval. 

Cleveland remains home for the next six games, including games this weekend Friday night and Saturday afternoon vs. Utica, with the latter being televised on SportsTime Ohio. The Monsters will also be home Feb. 5 vs. Rochester, Feb. 6-7 vs. Binghamton, and Feb. 11 against Grand Rapids. 

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