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Merzlikins not looking ahead to next season with Blue Jackets

Goalie prospect playing for Latvia at Worlds, could contend for NHL roster spot

by Aaron Vickers / Correspondent

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Elvis Merzlikins knows there could be an opportunity with the Columbus Blue Jackets next season.

But the 25-year-old goalie prospect, who's playing for Latvia at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, isn't looking too far ahead.

"I'm not really listening to that," Merzlikins said. "I have to prove it to myself that I am [ready] and I can be that. It's not about one year. It's about consistency. I don't want to make the NHL if it's not going to be long, maybe two or three years. I want to grow up and challenge that league and challenge those players. 

"That's my goal."

The Blue Jackets could have openings in goal next season. Sergei Bobrovsky and Keith Kinkaid each could become unrestricted free agents July 1. Joonas Korpisalo, who played 27 games (21 starts) in 2018-19, is a pending restricted free agent.

But Merzlikins, who was selected by the Blue Jackets in the third round (No 76) of the 2014 NHL Draft and signed a one-year, entry-level contract March 20, said he hasn't yet considered the opportunity that could be presented to him in training camp. 

"Until now, I have no idea about anything and I'm not thinking about that," Merzlikins said. "I was focusing on learning hockey in North America. At the end of the World Championship in the summer, my agent will come to me and let me know what's going to happen."

Merzlikins was 22-18-0 with a 2.44 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 43 games with Lugano of the Swiss National League (NLA) last season. He finished second in the league in wins, third in shutouts, fourth in save percentage and eighth in GAA.

He is 105-79-7 with a 2.63 GAA, .920 save percentage and 15 shutouts in 210 NLA games with Lugano and has twice won the Jacques Plante Trophy as the league's Goaltender of the Year (2016, 2018).

Bob Hartley, in his third season of coaching Merzlikins with Latvia at Worlds, believes he's ready for the NHL challenge. 

"I've said it many times…he's pretty impressive," said Hartley, who has 14 years of NHL coaching experience with the Colorado Avalanche, Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames. "His focus, the way he competes, his techniques, are second to none. What he's done in Lugano, what he's done so far with the Latvian national team is very good. It's very impressive. We can only wish him the best. We know the NHL is a great opportunity for Elvis. He'll be ready.

"I have no doubt that he'll be a good one."

Merzlikins has shown that on the international stage. He has been named one of Latvia's top three players in three straight tournaments (2016, 2017, 2018) with his best performance -- a 1.50 GAA and .940 save percentage in six games -- coming at the 2018 World Championship in Denmark. 

"He's faced NHL shooters [at the Worlds], but it's in a bigger rink, a different tournament, a different intensity level from the NHL and all that," Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told the Blue Jackets website in March. "It's different hockey when you play in the big rink in the World Championships. NHL hockey is different because of the small rink and the style of play, and that's what he'll have to get used to.  

"He's played against top players in the world at the international level, and there's some quality shooters in the Swiss league as well, so it's not like he hasn't played high-level hockey. Now he's going to have to face the best goal scorers in the world on a regular basis." 

Merzlikins' late-season trip to Columbus to work with goalie coach Manny Legace was the first step. It's helped put him on a potential path to step in next season with the Blue Jackets.

"It's different hockey," Merzlikins said. "There it's faster hockey. You don't have that much time as here. That's a difference, I guess. I had a really good 'camp' with my goalie coach, which has given me the chance to know him better since I'm going to work with him next year. He's awesome. He's a good coach and now a good friend. The organization treated me really good. 

"I'm happy I'm in good hands."  

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