Elvis Merzlikins

Roundtable: Qualifying round excitement; draft lottery reaction

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Which Qualifying Round series are you most excited to see?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: There are two reasons why I’m eager to see the Canucks-Wild series. Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.

They’re the two cornerstones of the Canucks rebuild and they helped Vancouver take big strides this season. This will be their first postseason — if you want to describe it like that — experience and in such a short series they could cause plenty of problems for Dean Evason and his charges.

Pettersson and Hughes weren’t the only two key cogs for the Canucks. J.T. Miller and goaltender Jacob Markstrom could share the team’s MVP award this season. Miller was their leading scorer (72 points) after being acquired from Tampa last summer and Markstrom finished top five in even-strength save percentage (.925). That will be important going against a Wild team that averaged over three goals per game.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: As tempting as it is to go rogue from my own selections — and as difficult as it was to rank all eight qualifiers to begin with — I should stay consistent and choose Penguins vs. Canadiens.

And, really, there’s a lot to love. For one thing, whether the Penguins are really “scared” of Carey Price or not, it adds some sizzle to the steak. There should be plenty to chew on with this series, too, as Pittsburgh boasts those big stars, while the Canadiens have been a strong possession team with not-so-strong results for some time now. The Penguins might be the most “overqualified” team for this play-in format, so imagine if Montreal pushes Pittsburgh to the brink?
(After watching Jaroslav Halak upset the Penguins back in 2010, wouldn’t it be odd for Price to do the same a decade later?)

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: I’ll have my eyes glued to the TV for the Toronto-Columbus series. The Maple Leafs have not won a playoff round since 2004, and the pressure is mounting considering how firmly entrenched in “win now” mode they are. After three straight first-round exits, a coaching change, and a lot of cash paid to its superstars, Toronto is running out of time to capitalize on their plan.

From Columbus’ perspective, a couple things stand out. First, the question mark in net. Neither goalie has any playoff experience. Joonas Korpisalo was stellar in the first half of the season and was named an All-Star, but got hurt and didn’t play much in 2020. Elvis Merzlikins didn’t win a game until New Year’s Eve, but once Korpisalo went down, he took the starter’s load and at one point recorded 5 shutouts in less than a month. Who will step up?

Another other major factor is Columbus’ health. Their top players were battered and bruised all season, and rarely at full capacity. With such a long layoff, we may see the best version of these Blue Jackets.

Considering the Leafs were staring down a First Round matchup with the Lightning before the pause, they will seemingly have their hands less full with Columbus. Then again, those Blue Jackets were a buzzsaw last year and swept the Presidents’ Trophy winners, so you really do never know. Especially when John Tortorella is involved.

 

[NHL announces return-to-play plans]

Complicated as it is, do you like the draft lottery procedure for this unique season?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I had to read it a dozen times just to come close to comprehending exactly how it will all go down.

It should have just been simplified: Those seven teams who didn’t make the Return to Play plan? Congrats! You have an equal shot at landing Alexis Lafreniere and are part of the lottery. Then, at the conclusion of each round, the losing teams will be slotted into the appropriate spots by regular season winning percentage until we end the Round 1 order with the two Stanley Cup teams.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Not really.

For one thing, if the NHL was so eager to run an early-June draft (at least according to reports), weren’t they doing so to create buzz? Going to go out on a limb and say that when rules are so convoluted that even Gary Bettman is apologizing for them, you probably aren’t going to leave fans very excited about the draft lottery. Considering that many of the most hardcore hockey fans only know a smattering of prospects, shouldn’t the lottery to win the few known quantities be a little more straightforward?
We live in complex times. Why not make sports easier to follow?

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Putting the very intricate details of the draft lottery aside for a moment, I am thrilled that the decision was made to place the draft itself after the conclusion of the season. The concept of a June draft never felt right to me. Not only would the determination of a draft order have felt somewhat arbitrary without a completed season, but there are so many components of crucial league business predicated on the draft taking place in the offseason. By keeping the draft in its traditional place, the NHL has ensured the most fair outcome for its teams as they prepare for what is hopefully a somewhat normal 2020-21 season.

Now, regarding the draft lottery: I am not a proponent of the procedure as outlined. The complexity doesn’t bother me; if the goal was to come as close as possible to the traditional format, where 15 non-playoff teams all get a shot at the lottery, then this is the best way to do it because there is no incentive to lose in the Qualifying Round, and the odds for the teams at the bottom of the standings remain as high as they usually are.

Except there are not 15 non-playoff teams. Effectively, there are only seven. And those seven teams are at a disadvantage relative to the 16 teams who will play in the Qualifying Round.

A reason why the NHL ended up with a 24-team format was to accommodate the large number of teams who were on the playoff bubble. So, the cutoff line for those who will get a shot at the Stanley Cup was made more forgiving. Why then is there simultaneously a reward for those teams (getting the chance to win a Cup), as well as a safety net (chances at the top 3 picks). Normally, you either get one or the other. Now, you get both, all while the system remains unchanged for the teams at the bottom.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft odds
A look at the Western Conference matchups

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins, lock down cheap goalie tandem

Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins
Getty Images

Don’t you step on all of your best Elvis jokes at once, because the Columbus Blue Jackets are keeping Elvis Merzlikins around for a while.

Blue Jackets secure goalie tandem for two more seasons with Elvis Merzlikins extension

Not long after signing fellow goalie Joonas Korpisalo to a two-year extension, the Blue Jackets signed Merzlikins for two years as well. Interestingly, the Blue Jackets will reportedly pay Merzlikins more than Korpisalo. While Korpisalo’s AAV will be $2.8 million starting next season, The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that Merzlikins’ cap hit will be $4M. Each deal runs through the 2021-22 season.

Portzline shares the yearly breakdown:

Let’s get one of the gut reactions out of the way first: the Blue Jackets will devote less cap space to Merzlikins and Korpisalo ($6.8M) than the Panthers are paying a struggling, aging Sergei Bobrovsky ($10M).

That inevitable comment aside, the Blue Jackets made an interesting bet this past week.

An interesting tandem

Korpisalo (25) and Merzlikins (26) stand at an interesting intersection between being in their primes, yet fairly unproven for their ages. After all, Elvis is in the middle of his rookie season, with just 33 NHL games played.

Honestly, while his stats at other levels are impressive, it all comes in the Swiss League. If they’re being honest, the Blue Jackets must admit that they only know so much about Merzlikins.

That said, Elvis has been a stunning smash hit for the Blue Jackets. While his 13-9-8 record is merely modest, Merzlikins sports a .923 save percentage, and his advanced stats are promising. By Hockey Reference’s version of Goals Saved Against Average, Merzlikins ranked ninth in the NHL with a 12.10 mark this season.

John Tortorella’s system helped the goalies involved, but Merzlikins played an enormous role in helping Columbus stay in playoff contention. That’s no small feat considering the wave of injuries that besieged the Blue Jackets.

At first, it was a little surprising that Merzlikins ($4M) will carry a larger cap hit than Korpisalo ($2.8M). After all, the Blue Jackets worked hard during the expansion draft to make sure they could keep Korpi.

But Korpisalo hasn’t delivered quite as they hoped. The 2019-20 season represents one of his better efforts, yet even then Korpisalo was merely solid with a .911 save percentage. If you had to bet on one of these two goalies putting together elite work, you might swing for the fences with Merzlikins.

Of course, goalies remain a mystery to most of us, so who knows? If nothing else, the Blue Jackets kept a cheap tandem together that’s reasonably young. It sure beats, well (insert Bobrovsky joke that’s almost cruel at this point).

More on the Blue Jackets:

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

GM: Blue Jackets stay in the present but plan for the future

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Amid uncertainty about whether the 2019-20 season will continue, the Columbus Blue Jackets are looking ahead to next season.

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen announced the signing Monday of Russian forward Mikhail Grigorenko to a one-year contract for next season. A person with knowledge of the contract told The Associated Press it’s worth $1.2 million, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team does not release contract terms.

The deal was later rejected by the NHL, and the Blue Jackets tweeted that it was due to a ‘misunderstanding with regard to the filing window, and that the contract will be resubmitted July 1.

Last week the team locked up goalie Joonas Korpisalo for two more years with a contract worth a reported $5.6 million.

”I think it’s just business as usual for us,” Kekalainen insisted during a Monday conference call with reporters, while noting that the team is embroiled in discussions internally and with the NHL about if and how the current season will resume after the coronavirus threat wanes.

”We’ve talked to Grigorenko for two years, and now his contract’s up and he’s done playing for the year,” Kekalainen said. ”It’s business as usual, we’re just not meeting at the office. We’re doing it on FaceTime or Zoom on our computers, talking to each other by phone.”

The 25-year-old Grigorenko had 22 goals and 42 assists in 217 career NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres from 2012-17. He was the 12th overall pick by Buffalo in 2012 and can play all three forward positions.

The native of Khabarovsk, Russia, has spent the past three seasons with CSKA in the Kontinental Hockey League, with 46 goals and 70 assists in 147 games from 2017-20. Kekalainen said he’s noted improvement in the player since he was in the NHL.

The two-year contract for Korpisalo will give the 25-year-old a chance to establish himself as the team’s starter. Rookie backup Elvis Merzlikins also proved he is worthy of a starting job.

The team likely will try to re-sign Merzlikins, and conventional wisdom is that one of them will eventually be trade bait as Columbus seeks more offensive help for next year.

Korpisalo said he wants to be the guy.

”I’ve been working for many years, and I’ve got a good chance to make it,” he said Monday. ”I think I’ve said I played OK. I always knew I had it in myself, and now signing a two-year contract, I’m really honored and it’s really a place I want to be. Just happy to stay in Columbus and try to make the best of myself.”

Korpisalo, who is at home in Finland, said he reckons it will take ”a couple weeks” just to get players back together and start training again if the league comes up with a plan to finish the season.

Ideas floated include trying to finish the regular season at neutral sites with no fans or going right into an expanded playoff scenario. If the playoffs were to begin with 16 teams, the Blue Jackets would be edged out by percentage points, so naturally Kekalainen is advocating for an expanded playoff field.

”I don’t think there’s a fair way to cut it to 16 teams right away,” he said.

”We have some ideas,” he said. ”And obviously we want to be part of it. We were right there when play halted and paused.”

If the season continues, most players who were injured would be ready to go, Kekalianen said, including star defenseman Seth Jones and forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand and Alexandre Texier.

Blue Jackets extend Korpisalo with two-year deal

Getty Imagees

The Columbus Blue Jackets rewarded goalie Joonas Korpisalo with a two-year contract extension, the club announced Friday. According to CapFriendly.com, the deal carries an average annual value of $2.8 million.

Korpisalo posted a 19-12-5 record in 37 games this season with a 2.60 goals against average and two shutouts. The 26-year-old goaltender was selected for his first All-Star Game but did not participate due to a knee injury that sidelined him for close to two months.

“Joonas had the opportunity to play a lot of games for us early in the season before he was injured and responded by playing at an All-Star level,” general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told the team’s website. “He is a young, talented goaltender with a great work ethic and desire to succeed and we are very excited to see his continued development and improvement moving forward.”

While Sergei Bobrovsky left Columbus for a lucrative contract with the Florida Panthers this past summer, Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins filled in admirably.

The Blue Jackets currently own the second wild card in the Eastern Conference based on total points but the New York Islanders trail by one point with two games in hand.


Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.

What is the Columbus Blue Jackets’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Pending Free Agents
Josh Anderson (RFA)
Gabriel Carlsson (RFA)
Pierre-Luc Dubois (RFA)
Vladislav Gavrikov
Jakob Lilja (RFA)
Joonas Korpisalo (RFA)
Ryan MacInnis (RFA)
Elvis Merzlikins (RFA)
Devin Shore (RFA)
Kevin Stenlund (RFA)

The Core

The Columbus Blue Jackets do not have the elite goal-scorer or dangerous playmaker that top-tier NHL teams have, but they do possess a few critical components of their foundation to build a long-term successful roster.

Zach Werenski and Seth Jones anchor the Blue Jackets’ blue line and make up one of the top defensive pairings throughout the NHL. Their steady play helped goaltender Joonas Korpisalo become an All-Star this season and Elvis Merzlikins look like a seasoned veteran in his rookie season between the pipes.

Pierre-Luc Dubois continued his development as a top-line center and was in position to match his 61-point total from a season ago. However, Cam Atkinson and Josh Anderson’s production dropped off dramatically. Atkinson only netted 12 goals in 44 games this season, while Anderson scored one time in 26 games. Both players missed time with injuries this season (along with most of the Blue Jackets’ roster) but couldn’t produce offensively the way they have in the past.

Despite Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin leaving the organization last summer, the Blue Jackets remained in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race up until the NHL Pause a few weeks ago.

The experience gained in the spring of 2019 when the Blue Jackets secured a playoff spot and won a series for the first time in franchise history paid dividends for the team this season.

Long-Term Needs

The Blue Jackets averaged 2.57 goals per game in the 70 games they played this season and desperately need to add more playmakers. The lack of production from Atkinson and Anderson hurt dramatically and injuries contributed to them becoming one of the bottom-five teams in goals per game this season.

One area of concern is depth at the center position. Dubois is on track to become a building block every successful team needs in the middle, but the roster lacks playmakers behind the promising young player.

Alexandre Texier showed promise this year before a back injury derailed his season and John Tortorella believes he could fill a gaping hole in the lineup.

“The thing I like about Tex is I think he understands how to play low in that (center) position,” Torts told the team website. “A lot more comes into play as a centerman when you don’t have the puck in your end zone, a lot more reads like a defenseman, and I think he has the intelligence to do that.”

Columbus does not have the sexiest roster in the NHL, but they do have the right pieces of the puzzle to be a playoff team for the next several seasons.

Long-Term Strengths

While Tortorella’s antics during press conferences have been entertaining, he had one of his strongest seasons behind the bench and proved to be one of the NHL’s best bench bosses. The Blue Jackets did not have a 50-point scorer and proved to be greater than the sum of their parts with a strong season following a tumultuous summer.

The Blue Jackets sustained a league-leading 15 overtime/shootout losses (including a mistake which produced an epic postgame press conference) and could have pulled away from a crowded playoff wild-card race if a few of those outcomes went their way.

Jones and Werenski are two world-class defenders and Dubois is growing into a dynamic center but Columbus needs to fill out its roster. The Blue Jackets’ front office must find the right corresponding pieces to skate alongside their foundational players in order to take the next step as a franchise.

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Scott Charles is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottMCharles.