Elvis Merzlikins

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Blue Jackets look to reassemble pieces after free agent losses

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Columbus Blue Jackets watched three of their best players leave for other teams on the opening day of free agency and did relatively little to fill the holes.

When the dust settled after Monday’s comings and goings, many questions remained about whether general manager Jarmo Kekalainen will be able reassemble enough pieces for Columbus to make a run at the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

The success of the team in 2019-20 will depend on a player or combination of players filling the offensive void left by departed forward Artemi Panarin. And it will require last year’s backup goalie Joonas Korpisalo – or someone else – to be nearly as good as two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.

Panarin, who was considered a long shot to re-sign with Columbus after two seasons, inked a seven-year deal with the New York Rangers worth $81.5 million. Bobrovsky went to the Florida Panthers after seven years in Columbus, and center Matt Duchene, picked up at the February trade deadline, moved on to Nashville.

Forward Ryan Dzingel, defenseman Adam McQuaid and goalie Keith Kinkaid – all acquired at the deadline and now unrestricted free agents – are not likely to stay with Columbus, which also lost its top executive, John Davidson, to the Rangers’ front office.

The Blue Jackets did pick up free-agent forward Gustav Nyquist from the San Jose Sharks. The Swedish winger was dealt by the Detroit Red Wings at the deadline and helped the Sharks advance to the Western Conference finals. He totaled 22 goals and 38 assists last season.

Kekalainen has said he wants only players who are happy to play in Columbus. Nyquist said that includes him.

”I think it’s a team that has some really good pieces, some young pieces and also some great veteran leaders, and a team that’s really heading in the right direction,” Nyquist said. ”You saw that in last year’s playoffs. Those were things that really excited me.”

Nyquist said the departure of some of the stars doesn’t concern him.

”I’m sure the media will talk about that,” he said. ”But I think we want to prove that there is going to be opportunity for other guys who are going to try to come in and fill some of those holes, and I’m sure everyone will be excited to keep building on what they’ve done here for the last few years. I have no doubt in my mind that we’re going to be a really good team.”

Kekalainen had declined to deal Panarin and Bobrovsky at the February trade deadline, even though he knew there was scant chance of re-signing either. Instead, he added Duchene, Dzingel and others for an ”all in” playoff run.

That paid off when Columbus won its first postseason series in franchise history, stunning the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning with a four-game sweep. The Blue Jackets then lost to Boston in six games in the second round.

Kekalainen said he knew some of those players might leave, but ”then we just move forward with what we have and start building other ways.”

That increases the reliance on scoring forwards Cam Atkinson, Pierre Luc-Dubois and Josh Anderson. It also puts pressure on underachieving center Alexander Wennberg to play up to his potential.

Talented defenseman Ryan Murray and Korpisalo, who was Bobrovsky’s backup last season, signed new contracts Monday. Bobrovsky leaves huge skates to fill for Korpisalo, who will compete with flashy rookie Elvis Merzlikins for the starting job in the net.

Tortorella on Blue Jackets’ goalie outlook, post-Bobrovsky future

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are headed toward what might be the most fascinating offseason of any team in the NHL thanks to their trade deadline splurge that saw them send off most of their 2019 draft picks in an effort to load up for a playoff run.

The good news is the additions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for the third year in a row (their longest streak in franchise history), but also have their most successful postseason to date, reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs where they fell in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. That came after a stunning and emphatic Round 1 sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning. It gave Blue Jackets fans a taste of success they hadn’t yet experienced and helped raise the bar on a franchise that had consistently been an afterthought.

None of that is a bad thing.

The problem is that along with their own stars, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Duchene and Dzingel are also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and there is a very real chance that none of that quartet will return to the team next season. Combine that with the fact the team only has two draft picks in this month’s draft (their own third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick that previously belonged to the Calgary Flames) and, as of now, only five for the 2020 class (if Duchene re-signs with the Blue Jackets, their 2020 first-round pick will also go to the Ottawa Senators as part of a condition attached to that trade) and there is a lot of work for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

That means a lot of changes are probably coming for the Blue Jackets.

The biggest of those changes will be in net where Bobrovsky is almost certainly going to be moving on in free agency.

With limited trade resources at their disposal and a thin crop of potential free agents at the position that spot might have to be filled from within, and that is not going to be easy given how important Bobrovsky has been to the Blue Jackets over the past seven years. Poke fun at his playoff resume and worry about the potential issues that would come with signing him to a seven-year contract at his current age all you want, but the reality is he has been one of the league’s best goalies and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the team.

It is not going to be easy to just replace that.

The internal option is Joonas Korpisalo, Bobrovsky’s top backup the past four years, while the team also signed 25-year-old Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, one-way contract this past month.

On Monday, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella appeared on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus and talked about the team’s offseason, with a special emphasis on the goaltending situation without Bobrovsky and how that might impact the team’s style of play.

“I don’t think Bob’s going to be here,” said Tortorella while appearing on his Hockey and Hounds segment with hosts Anthony Rothman and Bobby Carpenter (you can listen to the full segment here).

“You’re losing a very, very good goaltender. We may have young goaltenders that are going to be taking over that position. I have to start thinking about just a little bit of a change in style of play in order to protect them a little bit to get their feet wet. Korpi has obviously played, but Merzlikins is coming in here, we have couple of other guys coming in here, I’m not sure what it looks like. So we have to start thinking about style of play.”

The only conclusion that can be reached when hearing him talking about protecting inexperienced goalies is a more conservative approach, which might be necessary anyway Panarin and Duchene leave.

He was later asked if Korpisalo can be a No. 1 goalie for the team and after a slight hesitation in his response, expressed some confidence in him.

“I do,” said Tortorella. “I say that in a respectful way, because it’s hard to say if a guy that is kind of spotted in — you know Korpi ran with the ball early in the regular season, and we saw once he was playing a lot of games, we saw his game grow. I have not given him many opportunities to run with it because I simply can’t because I had Bob. He has certainly showed us, like a lot of players at that position, if you have the ball and you run with it and you are playing every other night and you get into a little bit of a roll, you are certainly going to play better. So that’s what we are going to look for with Korpi, we feel it’s in him, he hasn’t really had an opportunity go a couple of months being the No. 1 guy, he’s had a few weeks at certain times. He’s going to get an opportunity, that’s one think as I’ve talked to a few guys coming here, and maybe some guys from last year that didn’t get the ice time they wanted, it’s going to be an open book, you’re going to get an opportunity and you’re going to make the decision on if you play or not.”

The concern with Korpisalo is that his performance the past three years has not been great, even after a promising start to the 2018-19 season.

His save percentage the past two years is only .897, and if you go back to the start of the 2016-17 season it is only .899, a mark that places him 61st out of the 65 goalies that have appeared in at least 40 games since then.

Combine that with Merzlikins, who has zero games of NHL experience, and there is a lot of uncertainty at the position.

It is no wonder that Tortorella is looking at a slight change in the team’s playing style.

Making a trade seems like a major challenge given how depleted the team’s trade chips are after the deadline, while the free agent market after Bobrovsky is, in a word, unappealing. Robin Lehner is the next most significant name out there, but the New York Islanders are probably not going to let him get away.

Even with the likely free agent departures there is still a good bit of talent on this roster. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are stars on the blue line and there is still going to be some real talent at forward with Cam Atkinson and rapidly improving younger players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But the goaltending might end up making or breaking what this team is capable of in 2019-20, and right now the entire position seems like a giant mystery.

(S/T 1st Ohio Battery)

Related: Blue Jackets ink Bobrovsky’s potential successor

Blue Jackets ink Bobrovsky’s potential successor

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed a goalie! No, it’s not Sergei Bobrovsky but it could be his eventual replacement.

On Wednesday morning, the team announced that they’ve inked Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, one-way contract. The 25-year-old spent last season with Lugano in the Swiss League where he had a 22-18-0 record with a 2.44 goals-against-average and a .921 save percentage last season. He’s also a two-time winner of the Jacques Plante Trophy which is awarded to the top goaltender in the Swiss Leagues.

Merzlikins is currently representing Latvia at the 2019 World Hockey Championship.

This is actually Merzlikins’ second contract with Blue Jackets, as he signed a one-year, entry-level deal with the club back in March.

“Of course it was amazing (to sign),” he told the Blue Jackets’ website. “It’s the first part of a dream I’ve had since I was a kid that I realized, that I’ve reached.

“But it’s not like it’s that big a deal. A lot of guys can sign a contract. The main thing that I want to see is at what level I’m at, and prove to myself and especially to my mom — who made a huge sacrifice when I was a kid — to prove that I can stay in the best league in the world, not just show up there.”

There’s plenty of uncertainty surrounding the Blue Jackets’ crease heading into the summer. Franchise netminder Sergei Bobrovsky is currently scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1st. If they can’t bring the Russian goalie back, there’s a chance Columbus will head into training camp without a clear number one goalie.

European skaters typically have to adjust to a heavier schedule once they come to the NHL, but that might not be as big of a problem for Merzlikins who played in 43 games during the Swiss League regular season, four more in the playoffs, and however many starts he gets at the Worlds. No one expects him to be a 60-plus game starter in 2019-20, but he could potentially handle a respectable workload if he had to.

We’re still a far cry from him being in contention for the starting job in Columbus, but Jarmo Kekalainen is starting to gather his options in case Bobrovsky leaves this summer.

As of right now, Merzlikins is the only goalie on the active roster that’s under contract for next season. Bobrovksy and Keith Kinkaid will both be unrestricted free agents while Joonas Korpisalo is set to become a restricted free agent.

This should be a fascinating summer for the Blue Jackets.

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.

Departing stars could slow progress for Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If the Blue Jackets’ two best players leave town as expected, it will ripple through just about every move the team makes this summer.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are unrestricted free agents and almost certainly are out the door. Retooling the roster to compensate for the loss of the two Russians, and possibly other free agents, will mean a busy and interesting offseason for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

”We want guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys that want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus,” Kekalainen said Wednesday. ”If that’s the reason why you want to play somewhere else, then go play somewhere else.”

Kekalainen knew the elite pair probably would go – their refusal to sign contract extensions caused some strife in the locker room during the season – but held on hoping to make a deep postseason run. ”Bob” and ”Bread” ended up being a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ march to the playoffs and first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team during the regular season.

Columbus played in a second-round series for the first time in the 19 years the franchise has been in existence but fell to Boston 4-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal.

”We took a step in the right direction,” coach John Tortorella said. ”I hope we can see how difficult it is to keep on going. There are so many good things going on in our room now and – in talking to Jarmo and the management group – so many good pieces coming here. It’s an exciting time for us.”

But there will be retooling.

Forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, both picked up from Ottawa at the February trade deadline for the playoff run, also will be unrestricted free agents. Both were so-so down the stretch, but Duchene caught fire in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Defenseman Adam McQuaid, also a trade-deadline pickup, didn’t contribute much because of an injury and may or may not be re-signed.

”That’s part of the business, unfortunately,” said winger Cam Atkinson, who led the team with a career-high 41 goals. ”That’s the crappy part about it. But we’re so close as a team and an organization. We took a lot of huge strides forward this year. Ultimately, those guys get the make their own decision, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture.”

The Blue Jackets have some goalies in the wings but none of Bobrovsky’s caliber. Backup Joonas Korpisalo will get a good look but may not be an everyday goalie. Columbus likely will try to re-sign 29-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline but didn’t get into a single game with his new team.

The team also likes 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, a flashy Latvian goaltender who was a 2014 third-round draft pick. He’s had success in the Swiss National League and is expected to start next season on the Blue Jackets roster.

Columbus hopes forward Alexandre Texier and defensemen Vladislav Gavrikov – rookies who joined after their foreign league commitments finished – can develop into reliable NHL players. Both showed flashes in limited action in the playoffs. Highly touted prospects Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy also could be ready to contribute.

Columbus will have to find a way to replace Panarin’s team-leading 87 points, but will have Atkinson (41 goals, 28 assists) and Pierre Luc-Dubois (27, 34) as well as top blue-liners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

”We’re trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here,” Tortorella said. ”Our community put a stamp on it (in the playoffs), not just for us but for the hockey world.”

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

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