Jarmo Kekalainen

Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins
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Blue Jackets extend Elvis Merzlikins, lock down cheap goalie tandem

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

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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.

How aggressive should Blue Jackets be at trade deadline?

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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.

Werenski’s contract, goaltending are top questions for Blue Jackets

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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.

Pondering three important questions for the 2019-20 Columbus Blue Jackets.

1. What will Zach Werenski‘s contract look like, and when will it get signed?

This is currently the most pressing issue for the Blue Jackets.

Werenski is one of the team’s core players, helps form one of the league’s best defense duos alongside Seth Jones, and has had an outstanding start to his NHL career with his best years still in front of him.

Based on his current level of production he should be in line for a huge contract (maybe something in the seven-or eight-year, and $8 million per year range?) and the Blue Jackets certainly have the salary cap space to accommodate it. It is just a matter of when it actually gets signed and how much it’s for.

Like all of the remaining unsigned RFA’s (and there are a lot of significant ones) it is probably going to be a lengthy waiting game while everyone waits for the first shoe to drop around the league.

[More: 2018-19 In Review | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

2. Who is going to emerge as the starting goalie?

This is the position that is going to make-or-break the Blue Jackets’ season.

Sergei Bobrovsky may have had some issues in the playoffs, but he was also a major reason why the team managed to reach them in four of his six full seasons as the starting goalie.

Bobrovsky was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Columbus and one of the best, most productive goalies in the league during his tenure. That is not an easy thing to replace, and right now the Blue Jackets have no proven goalie on the roster.

The in-house candidates are Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins and it remains to be seen whether either one is capable of being a No. 1 starter in the NHL. Korpisalo has a sub-.900 save percentage over the past three seasons as a backup, while Merzlikins is 25 years old and has never played a game in North America. He is an intriguing option, but is a complete unknown at this point. If neither one is capable of stepping up to take control of the job it will be a major problem for the Blue Jackets that will become general manager Jarmo Kekalainen’s top priority to fix.

3. How will they replace the offense they lost this summer?

Pretty much everyone in hockey was anticipating a free agency exodus out of Columbus this summer with Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, and Bobrovsky all moving on to new teams. That is a lot of offense walking out the door, especially as it relates to Panarin who has been one of the NHL’s most dynamic offensive players and was the one true game-changing forward the team had.

That is obviously a lot to replace, but it doesn’t end there as there are another set of questions that arise with the players that are returning.

Among them: What if Cam Atkinson isn’t a 40-goal scorer again? What if Oliver Bjorkstrand, after scoring 23 goals, regresses? Will Pierre-Luc Dubois take another big step in his development? All of that can add up and only add to what the Blue Jackets need to replace this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV 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.