Elvis Merzlikins

NHL teams putting importance on backup goaltender position

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BOSTON — The Boston Bruins had it all set up to honor backup goalie Jaroslav Halak on Tuesday night for becoming the 74th goalie in NHL history to play in 500 games.

Then something went wrong: Starter Tuukka Rask was injured, Halak became the No. 1 guy and the Bruins decided to postpone the ceremony until a night Halak would be off.

”A lot of times, they’re in a zone before the game. We want them to enjoy that ceremony,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”With Tuukka’s, injury we were forced to change it.”

There are a lot of NHL teams making a lot of changes because of injuries to their starting goalies this season – and not just the ceremonies to honor middling milestones. Four goalies selected for the All-Star Game are injured, with Rask joining Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo, Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury. (Rask had already begged out of the game before he was injured.)

For NHL teams, the days of riding one goalie as much as possible have long since passed. Now, general managers know they need a strong No. 2 to get the team through the back-to-backs and the injuries that can pop up at any time.

”Some of that’s obviously the ability of the second goaltenders. Some teams just don’t have that,” Cassidy said. ”We’ve got two guys we feel real comfortable with. It makes for a good combination. Jaro, he’s handled if before. If it was Jaro hurt, Tuukka could have handled it.”

Last week, the Panthers said Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury. Starter Sergei Bobrovsky has already missed much of January with an unspecified injury.

Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was out for 15 games because his wife had a serious medical situation, and the Wild went 9-3-3, with six of those wins credited to Alex Stalock, their primary backup in his third season with the team.

The Coyotes thought they had their No. 1 goalie for the future when they got Antti Raanta from the Rangers in 2017. But he played just 59 games his first two seasons in Arizona. Darcy Kuemper took over and earned a spot in last year’s All-Star game, finishing fifth in the Vezina Trophy Award voting.

When Raanta returned, the Coyotes went with co-No. 1’s, and hovered near the top of the Pacific Division. Then Kuemper, who was 15-7-2 and second in the league with a 1.97 goals-against average, was injured on Dec. 20 and hasn’t played since.

Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said there was interest in Raanta earlier in the season, and he’s glad that general manager John Chayka didn’t bite on trade offers.

”I remember him saying to the staff, ‘A lot of teams are calling about Rants. We all looked at each other and said, ‘Rants and (Kuemper) are the identity of our team. They give us a chance to win,”’ Tocchet said ”I mean, we try to play good defense and do a lot of other things. But they give us this identity and this confidence. Why would we want to put a crack in the armor?”

Raanta went 9-9-2 before he was injured early this month. Adin Hill, who played 17 combined NHL games the previous two seasons, has gone 2-2-1 with a 2.40 goals-against average with Kuemper and Raanta out.

Bobrovsky won two Vezina Trophies in Columbus before departing for Florida as a free agent, and Korpisalo inherited the No. 1 job. A five-game winning streak in December landed him an All-Star selection.

But Korpisalo injured his knee trying to block a shot in a shootout on Dec. 29; rookie Elvis Merzlikins, a 25-year-old Latvian who had never won an NHL game when he took over, is 8-2-0 with a .955 save percentage, 1.55 goals-against average and three shutouts in his last four games.

”There’s certain teams in the league, they rely on one guy,” Cassidy said. ”Some of that may be that their salary cap just played out that way. They didn’t have the luxury. The cap probably precludes you from going to fix an area that maybe you didn’t see coming, or you did see coming but, hey, you went and spent it somewhere else.

”I just know as a coach, whoever’s number is on the board to go into the nets, we feel good about our chances.”

Our Line Starts podcast: Can Ovechkin catch Gretzky?; Merzlikins’ hot streak

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Ben Lovejoy analyze Alex Ovechkin’s hot streak; can he catch Wayne Gretzky on the all-time goals list? They react to Patrick Kane’s 1000th point, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith fighting each other, as well as Elvis Merzlikins leading Columbus’ recent run of success. Plus, Pierre McGuire interviews Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold, who talks about his favorite memory with the team, and the lessons learned from the 2017 expansion draft.

0:00-1:34 Intros
1:34-10:15 Ovi’s recent hot streak; Caps favorites in East?
10:15-20:36 Kane’s 1,000th point; Blackhawks fighting for playoffs
20:36-38:00 Pierre interviews Craig Leipold
40:05-end Elvis Merzlikins fueling Blue Jackets’ hot streak

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Kassian’s road to sobriety; Maple Leafs and the deadline

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Zack Kassian opens up about his road to sobriety. [Pass it to Bulis]

• The Blackhawks are playing well. Are they for real? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A lifelong fan of the Blackhawks, Kendall Coyne Schofield now works alongside the organization to inspire the next generation of girls’ hockey. [Blackhawks]

• A look at the NHL standings under a 3-2-1 points system. [ESPN]

• The Islanders’ current swoon can be blamed on veteran mistakes. [Islanders Insight]

• “Every year has in-season variance, but in 2019-20 it has all been in one direction. Teams are simply outscoring our expectations, repeatedly. And this isn’t some clunky model issue – league scoring is at the highest it has been since the 1995-96 and 2005-06 seasons. Year to date, expected goals have understated actual goals by 240.” [TSN]

• Get to know Quinton Byfield, one of the top prospects in the 2020 NHL Draft. [NHL.com]

• Let’s all welcome Elvis Merzlikins to the Calder Trophy discussion. [1st Ohio Battery]

• Is a Jeff Carter reunion in the works for the Flyers? [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• A behind the scenes look at the making of the LA Kings Stadium Series jerseys. [Mayor’s Manor]

• What trade deadline moves should the Maple Leafs explore? [Sportsnet]

• How Peter DeBoer has changed the Golden Knights’ approach to the penalty kill. [Sin Bin Vegas]

• ‘Responsible’ Connor Brown taking game to new heights with the Senators. [Sporting News]

• Breaking down the best and the worst in the history of Senators jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

————

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.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

Blue Jackets Trade
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We need to talk a little more about the Columbus Blue Jackets because they are one of the most fascinating teams in the NHL right now.

Not only for their recent hot streak, but for what might still be ahead of them over the next couple of months.

Thanks to their win in New York on Sunday night, capped off with an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal with 26 seconds to play in regulation, they hold the first Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They are 15-2-4 since Dec. 9, while their overall record through 50 games is actually one point better than it was at the same point a year ago. Considering their offseason and the almost unbelievable run of injuries they have experienced once the season began, they are one of the biggest surprises in the league.

It all creates a pretty interesting discussion for what their front office does — or is able to do — before the NHL trade deadline.

1. They are in a position to buy, not sell

That is not up for much debate, either. This is the same team and front office that went all in before last season’s trade deadline at a time when they were still on the outside of the playoff picture. Not only are they in a playoff position right now, they are just one point back of the New York Islanders for the third spot in the Metropolitan Division.

There is also this: Their upcoming schedule through the trade deadline and end of February really softens up with only five of their next 16 games coming against teams that currently rank higher than 19th in the league in points percentage. Three of those games (two against Philadelphia, one against Florida) will be against teams they could be directly competing with for a playoff spot.

There is a chance to gain even more ground and solidify their spot even more.

2. What they need and what they have to spend

What they have to spend: A lot. The only teams with more salary cap space to spend ahead of the deadline are the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators, and Colorado Avalanche. Out of that group, only the Avalanche will be in a position to buy. The Blue Jackets, in theory, could add any player that is theoretically available before the trade deadline.

What they need: At the start of the season the easy — and expected — answer here would have been a goalie given the uncertainty of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and their ability to replace Bobrovsky. After some early struggles, they have turned out to be the Blue Jackets’ biggest bright spot as that tandem has combined for the second-best five-on-five save percentage in the NHL and the third-best all situations save percentage. They have been great, and especially Merzlikins with his recent play.

What they really need now is some scoring. Getting healthy would help a lot (Cam Atkinson just returned to the lineup; Josh Anderson, Alexandre Texier are still sidelined) but they do not have a single player in the top-77 of the league in scoring (Pierre-Luc Dubois is 78th), and only two in the top-120 (Dubuois and Gustav Nyquist).

As a team, they are 24th in the league in goals per game.

Looking around the league, obvious forward rentals would include Tyler Toffoli (Los Angeles Kings), Chris Kreider (New York Rangers), Ilya Kovalchuk (Montreal Canadiens), and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (Ottawa Senators). Potential trade options with term still remaining might include Jason Zucker (Minnesota Wild) or Tomas Tatar (Montreal).

3. The problem: How aggressive can they be?

The downside to their “all in” trade deadline a year ago is that it absolutely decimated their draft pick cupboard for two years. They were left with just three picks in the 2019 class (none before pick No. 108) and as it stands right now they have just five picks in 2020, with only one of them (a first-round pick) slated to be in the top-100.

While players like Texier and Emil Benstrom are good prospects, their farm system is not the deep and the younger players currently on the NHL roster (Dubuois, Seth Jones, Werenski) are players they are going to build around.

That seriously limits what they can do.

Is general manager Jarmo Kekalainen in a position to trade another first-round pick to add to what is a pretty good, but probably not great team? Is there a player available that can a big enough difference to make that worth it? If there is, that player can not be a rental. It has to be a player that has meaningful term left on their contract and can be a part of the organization beyond just this season.

Even if you assume the Blue Jackets will not be able to maintain their current hot streak (and they will cool off at some point) they have at the very least put themselves in a position where they are going to be in the playoff race with a very good chance of making it. This is also not a team in a “rebuild” mode, either. When you are in that position you owe it to your fans and the players in that room to try to win. For the Blue Jackets, it is just a matter of how much they can do and how aggressive they should be over the next few weeks.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NHL Power Rankings: Top rookie performances so far

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we keep it on an individual player level and dig into the 10 best rookie performances so far this season.

It has been an interesting rookie class because two of the most anticipated rookies — top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kappo Kaako) have gone through some early growing pains and have not really played their way into the Calder Trophy discussion. That is nothing to be concerned about, either. Not every 18-year-old is going to jump right into the league and make an immediate impact. Sometimes it takes a year. Sometimes it takes two. They both still have great futures ahead of them and should be stars (maybe even superstars?) in the NHL.

It has, however, been a great first half for rookie defensemen (four in the top-ten) and a couple of rookie goalies.

Which rookies have stood out the most so far this season?

To the rankings!

1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. Makar entered the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites, and he has not only met the high expectations placed upon him, he has probably exceeded them. He is already the best defenseman on one of the NHL’s best and most exciting teams. An exceptional skater, great passer, and a lightning fast release that just looks effortless and unstoppable. He is a one-man highlight reel almost every night.

(See it here, too)

2. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. When the 2019-20 season began it was expected that a Hughes would be at the top of the rookie class. And there is. It’s just probably not the one (Jack, the No. 1 overall pick this year) that most thought would be this high on the list. For the third year in a row the Canucks have one of the league’s top-two rookies as Hughes joins their promising core alongside Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

3. Victor Olofsson, Buffalo Sabres. One of the few bright spots in yet another massively disappointing season for the Sabres. At 24 he is a little older than your average rookie, but he has been a great fit next to Jack Eichel on the Sabres’ top line when he’s been healthy. As of Monday he still leads all rookies in scoring even though he has not played in close to a month due to injury.

4. John Marino, Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins acquired Marino from the Edmonton Oilers for a conditional sixth-round draft pick in a trade that few people noticed when it was announced. All Marino has done this season is help transform the Penguins’ defense into one of the league’s best. He is already a 20-minute per night player, helps drive possession, has great defensive metrics, and has helped bring back mobility and puck skills to the Penguins’ blue line.

5. Dominik Kubalik, Chicago Blackhawks. Stan Bowman has made some questionable trades and decisions over the past few years, but this is one that he knocked out of the park. The Blackhawks acquired Kubalik from the Los Angeles Kings for a fifth-round draft pick almost exactly one year ago. He was always considered a talented prospect with offensive upside (something the Kings could use!), but he hadn’t shown a willingness to actually sign with the Kings. So they traded him. The Blackhawks were the team that pounced and added some desperately needed scoring depth. He has 21 goals on the season, with 10 of them coming over the past two weeks. Recency bias plays a role here, but he has made a huge jump in the Calder Trophy discussion from where he was even a few weeks ago when he probably was not even on the radar.

6. Ilya Samsonov, Washington Capitals. The Capitals’ goalie of the future should probably be getting even more playing time in the present. In his 19 appearances this season he owns a 15-2-1 record with a .927 save percentage and is currently on a run where he has won 10 consecutive decisions. He has not lost a start since Nov. 15 against the Montreal Canadiens. His play is probably making it easier to say goodbye to long-time starter (and long-time top-shelf goalie) Braden Holtby this summer in free agency.

7. Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus Blue Jackets. Like Kubalik, he is another rookie that has picked up his play very recently. When Blue Jackets starting goalie Joonas Korpisalo went down with an injury, Merzlikins had yet to win a game in the NHL and had a sub-.900 save percentage. It would have been easy to write off the Blue Jackets’ playoff chances at that point. Instead, Merzlikins has helped carry the team into the first Wild Card spot (as of Monday) in the Eastern Conference thanks to an 8-2-0 record, three shutouts,

8. Adam Fox, New York Rangers. Not going to lie, I kind of hate putting him this low because I feel like it underrates the season he has had. He has been really good. But, I also think the top-four here are clearly the head of the rookie class. It is also hard to ignore how downright dominant Kubalik and Merzlikins have been recently and the role they have played for their teams. Fox was one of two key additions to the Rangers’ blue line over the summer alongside Jacob Trouba. Trouba has the big name and the massive contract, but there is no denying which player has been the better addition for the Rangers — it is Fox.

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. Necas is very quietly putting together a strong rookie season. He is the fifth-leading scorer on the team and his current scoring pace would put him on track for nearly 20 goals and 50 points with strong possession numbers. Not quite enough to be a Calder Trophy favorite, but that is still a heck of a season for a 21-year-old in his first full NHL season.

10. Nick Suzuki, Montreal Canadiens. Suzuki was the key long-term player for the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty trade, and they are getting their first taste of what he is capable of this season. He is still a bit of a work in progress, but he has improved dramatically over the past couple of months and is currently the fifth-leading scorer among all rookies. Pacioretty is having a career year for the Golden Knights, but Tomas Tatar (the other key player in that trade) having a great year of his own, and Suzuki showing a ton of potential, it is one that — so far — has worked out well for both teams.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.