Joonas Korpisalo

NHL teams putting importance on backup goaltender position

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BOSTON (AP) — 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.”

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.

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

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.

Hurricanes’ Hamilton suffers nasty looking leg injury in loss to Blue Jackets

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(UPDATE: The Hurricanes announced on Friday that Hamilton suffered a broken leg.)

The Carolina Hurricanes dropped a tough 3-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night. That result was not their biggest concern from the game.

The concern is the status of defenseman Dougie Hamilton after he exited the game late in the second with what appears to be a nasty leg injury following a collision along the boards.

You can see the play in the video above.

He was unable to put any weight on his leg as he was helped off the ice.

Coach Rod Brind’Amour didn’t have much of an update after the game, simply saying that it “doesn’t look good.”

If Hamilton is seriously injured and has to miss any significant time that would be a massive hole for the Hurricanes to have to try to fill. He has been arguably the best defenseman in the NHL this season and is one of the Hurricanes’ top players in every aspect of the game. He helps drive the offense, he runs the power play, he helps shut down teams defensively, he drives possession, and he is their leader in ice-time. That is not a player you just replace, whether it be internally or from outside the organization.

Huge win for Blue Jackets

As for the game itself, this was a huge game in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race as the two teams entered the game separated by just two points. Columbus’ win, combined with Philadelphia’s loss to Montreal, means that that the Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, and Flyers are in a three-way tie for the two Wild Card spots with 56 points each.

The Florida Panthers, just one point back following their 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings, are just one point back of that group with games in hand on all three teams.

The Blue Jackets were able to get the win thanks to a late third period goal from captain Nick Foligno.

Columbus’ recent success is one of the most surprising stories of the 2019-20 season. After losing four key players –including their two best players over the summer in free agency (Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel) they have been one of the most injured teams in the league this season. Even with all of that they are still on a 13-2-4 run over their past 19 games.

Cam Atkinson, their leading goal-scorer from a year ago, had been one of the key players sidelined in recent weeks. He returned to the lineup on Tuesday and recorded two points (one goal, one assist) in the win.

Elvis Merzlikins continued his great play in place of the injured Joonas Korpisalo by stopping 32 out of 34 shots 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.

PHT Morning Skate: Why Gallant was fired; Will Yzerman bring him to Red Wings?

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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.

• Golden Knights GM Kelly McCrimmon explains why the team fired Gerard Gallant. The vague “underperforming” explanation cements something, to me: this is a defining decision by McCrimmon. It’s striking how many players said that they loved playing for Gallant, by the way. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

• Gallant developed a friendship with Detroit Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman over the years. (Witness that in that glorious main image from Getty Images/Sports Illustrated’s George Tiedemann from 1988.) Things already seemed shaky for Jeff Blashill beyond 2019-20. What happens now that Gallant is available? (Detroit Free-Press)

• Frank Seravalli breaks down a brutal, stunning season for NHL coaches. (TSN)

• Ilya Kovalchuk discusses why things didn’t work with the Kings, and the fit in Montreal. Kovalchuk explains to Eric Engels that he’s “useless” playing 7-10 minutes per night. (Sportsnet)

• Playing in (and winning) a World Series must have been nerve-wracking for Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals. Then again, his thought on suiting up during a Capitals practice was “I hope I don’t die.” Good stuff. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

David Perron provides some fascinating insight on how he looks at certain hockey analytics. He also explains some of the stats the Blues emphasize. (The Point)

• More on the Blues: how the team shakes off injuries. (St. Louis Game Time)

• The Lightning are red-hot right now, and critics are wrong: their defense is strong. (Raw Charge)

• Key tactical adjustments make for an improved New York Rangers. (Blue Seat)

• The Blue Jackets aren’t just surviving in net post-Sergei Bobrovsky, they’re thriving. It sets up something unexpected: a potential goalie battle between two netminders who are playing well. (The Hockey News)

• Gus Katsaros does a deep analytics dive on the Devils. (Rotoworld)

• Need a sign that things are odd in 2020? How about this: the Capitals power play is struggling. (Nova Caps)

• Scotty Wazz shares news on TV coverage for “3 Ice,” a 3-on-3 summer league. If it can be anywhere near as cool as a similar basketball league, sign me up. Bonus points if it includes barely-retired players akin to Joe Johnson tearing it up. It’s starting up in June 2021.(Scotty Wazz)

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.