Joonas Korpisalo

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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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Blue Jackets do themselves no favors after getting hammered by Bruins

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You know it’s not going to be your night when you get scored on early on a goal that had to bounce perfectly past Sergei Bobrovsky and into the back of the net.

And one of the flukier goals you’ll see in hockey seemed to set the tone for an ugly night at the office for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who came into the game with the chance to secure their third straight ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Instead, they’ll have to keep sweating a tight playoff race following a 6-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on NBCSN on Tuesday.

Indeed, the Blue Jackets will keep their playoff spot tonight, just barely. With the Carolina Hurricanes winning 4-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former leapfrogged the Blue Jackets into the first wild-card spot. And with the Montreal Canadiens beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-2, both they and Columbus are tied on 94 points, with the Blue Jackets holding the tiebreak at this point.

The good news for Columbus, who end the season against the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, is that they control their own destiny still. But it just goes to show that a five-game winning streak can mean very little down the stretch. One bump in the road can undo all that hard work.

It also means that Columbus might have played their final game at home this season, with their remaining two regular-season games coming on the road.

The Bruins ended a two-game skid, and locked up their second seeding in the Atlantic Division after picking up two crucial points (and with help from the Hurricanes, whose win meant Toronto couldn’t catch them any longer).

Boston will now have home-ice advantage in their Round 1 series with the Maple Leafs.

Brad Marchand has had the best season of his career and put an exclamation point on that after his two-point night helped him hit the 100-point milestone for the first time in his career.

Marchand scored his 36th of the season to make it 3-0 and then assisted on David Pastrnak‘s strike that made it 5-0 in the third period. You could see what it meant to his teammates and himself.

Bob was pulled after allowing four goals on 23 shots. Joonas Korpisalo wasn’t any better in relief, allowing two goals on five shots himself.

Columbus mounted a bit of a comeback bid, scoring twice in about 3:30, goals that each came on the power play, including Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s goal that extended his goal-scoring streak to six games. The problem was, five-on-five, the Bruins were simply better and responded just 1:14 after Columbus made it 5-2 with Karson Kuhlman’s third to make it 6-2.

Boston sat on their lead in the third for the most part, getting outshot 17-4 in the frame.


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

Bobrovsky out again as Blue Jackets face Oilers

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One of the more intriguing aspects of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ late-season push to make the playoffs has been the handful of games in which they have not only rested starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but have not even dressed him.

Thursday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers will be another one of those games as he will once again not be available.

In the words of head coach John Tortorella, via Blue Jackets insider Jeff Svoboda, it is because “he’s nicked.”

Joonas Korpisalo will get the start with Keith Kinkaid serving as the backup.

There were was even more intrigue to this situation on Thursday when Kinkaid was briefly shaken up in practice following a collision with 6-3, 220-pound forward Josh Anderson, but he seems to be okay and available for backup duties on Thursday.

This will be the third time over the past month that Bobrovsky has not dressed for a game, having also been scratched against the Pittsburgh Penguins back on March 7 in what was at the time a massive game, and then again one week later against the Boston Bruins. The explanation for the scratch against Pittsburgh was so they could rest him and allow him to work on his game (he returned to start one night later at home against the same Penguins team), while the Boston scratch came just one night after he stopped 46 shots in a shutout win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

All of it together leads to a lot of speculation and questions.

Has he been “nicked” up all this time? Does that explain why the Blue Jackets felt the need to trade for Kinkaid and willingly carry three NHL caliber goalies at this point in the season? Does it help explain why Bobrovsky’s performance has dropped off this much for the season as a whole?  Or did they just simply want to keep all of their goalies fresh and give themselves some added depth? Maybe all of the above?

These are questions we probably will not get clear answers to until the end of the season (if at all), but there is definitely a lot to take in here.

Bobrovsky’s .909 save percentage is one of the worst marks of his NHL career and comes during a year in which he is playing for a big contract this summer.

He has been better lately with a .945 save percentage in his past six starts, winning four of them.

The Blue Jackets enter the night with only a one-point lead over the Montreal Canadiens for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and are just 5-6-1 in 12 games since the NHL trade deadline when they added Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Kinkaid in an effort to make one more big run while they still have Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky on the roster.

Given how much the Oilers have struggled lately and how tight the playoff race is, these are two points the Blue Jackets simply have to get no matter who their goalie is.

Related: Blue Jackets need to take advantage of schedule

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.

Blue Jackets go back to Bobrovsky for huge game against Penguins

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Under normal circumstances a team starting its No. 1 goalie in a massively important regular season game, with a playoff spot on the line, against their main rival, would not be a newsworthy event.

That is just what you expect to happen.

But the announcement that the Columbus Blue Jackets are starting Sergei Bobrovsky against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday is a pretty big deal because when these two teams met just two nights ago in Pittsburgh, the Blue Jackets not only opted to not start their top goalie, they did not even dress him as the backup.

He was not an option at all for what was to that point the biggest game of the season.

It was such an eye-opening move because Bobrovsky has struggled horribly against the Penguins over the past couple of years, and the decision to go with backup Joonas Korpisalo seemed to indicate that maybe the team didn’t have faith in their starter in this particular matchup.

But with Saturday’s game taking on even more importance, especially after the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens both lost on Friday night, the Blue Jackets are going right back to their starter.

It will be a big test for him and the Blue Jackets as they look to finally break through the wall the Penguins have built in front of them.

Thursday’s 3-0 loss was the eighth consecutive time the Blue Jackets have lost to the Penguins and pushed them to four points behind them in the standings, while also keeping them on the outside of the playoff picture. Another regulation loss on Saturday would extend that deficit to six points behind the Penguins and make it almost impossible for them to catch back up down the stretch. A regulation win, however, would bring them back to within two points and, at least temporarily, put them back in a playoff position ahead of the Canadiens.

But if any of that is going to happen the Blue Jackets are going to need Bobrovsky to shake off his previous struggles against the Penguins. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, including their playoff meeting that season, Bobrovsky has a sub-.880 save percentage against them, and only a .905 mark for his career. That is one of his worst career-long performances against any team in the league.

That will level of play will not be good enough on a night like this.

Korpisalo actually played really well in place of Bobrovsky on Thursday night, giving up only two goals (one of which was a fluky play; the third Penguins goal was an empty net goal), only to get no offensive support from the skaters in front of him, something that has been a struggle for the Blue Jackets in the six games since the trade deadline.

That, too, will have to change.

There is immense pressure on the Blue Jackets to make the playoffs this season, not only because of the fact they are likely to lose Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin after this season, but because they sold off almost their entire 2019 draft class to acquire several more UFA’s at the trade deadline including Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid. Missing the playoffs with all of that happening would be a brutal pill for the Blue Jackets to swallow and would probably put everyone from the head coach to the general manager on the hot seat going into the offseason.

If they are going to avoid that it almost certainly has to start with a win on Saturday. For that to happen they are going to need their starter to play like the top-tier, two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie that he is.

Push for the Playoffs: Another chance for the Blue Jackets

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.