Blue Jackets need goalie to step up under pressure

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Columbus Blue Jackets.

The Blue Jackets were hit hard by unrestricted free agency this summer. Replacing Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene won’t be easy, but they have enough talented forwards to get by. The same can’t be said for the goaltending position.

When Sergei Bobrovsky left for Florida, his departure left a huge void in Columbus’ crease. Now, the two goalies on the active roster, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, have a combined cap hit of just over $2 million for next season. By comparison, Bobrovsky will make $10 million per year for the next seven seasons.

Korpisalo has 90 games of the NHL experience and he’s never suited up in more than 31 contests in any of his campaigns with Columbus. As for Merzlikins, he doesn’t have any NHL experience. The 25-year-old spent the previous six years with Lugano in the Swiss League.

Given Korpisalo’s experience, he’ll likely enter training as the favorite to land the starting gig. Can he handle the workload?

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three Questions | X-Factor]

“We feel we have two young goaltenders that have great potential,” Kekalainen said of Korpisalo and Merzlikins, .per NHL.com.

“With the exception of Carey Price and Martin Brodeur and a few others, almost every No. 1 goalie in the National Hockey League started as a No. 2, and when they got the opportunity to be No. 1, they took advantage of it.”

Yeah, that’s a simple way of looking at it. But there’s definitely an opportunity for one of these two goalies to emerge as a starting netminder in 2019-20. Given where the game is headed, the Jackets might need both goaltenders to elevate their game. Many teams are opting to use two goalies more regularly so that their starting netminder can be fresher for the playoffs. So not only do they need to make sure that one of these two youngsters turns in to a solid starting goalie, they also need to make sure that the other develops into a strong back up as soon as this season.

The good news for Columbus is that they still have enough talent on the roster to put themselves in the playoff conversation in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers, Rangers, Devils, Flyers and Sabres should all be better and the Canadiens only missed the playoffs by two points last year. Carolina, who finished as one of the two Wild Card teams along with Columbus, will be in conversation for the final playoff spots, again.

All the teams mentioned above have question marks on their rosters just like the Blue Jackets do. So yeah, Kekalainen’s team doesn’t have a proven starting goalie on the roster, but that doesn’t mean they should be written off before the start of the season.

“You want guys who want to be here, want to live here, and it’s amazing how that can take your team to another level,” said Kekalainen. “Guys really invested in the city and the fans, and they invested in us back. That marriage is what brings you together and bonds you to this team.”

Columbus will have to hope that the players that have bought in to their program will do enough to keep this team competitive.

Getting some strong goaltending would certainly go a long way to securing a playoff spot though.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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