Sergei Bobrovsky

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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’ future cloudy after Kekalainen’s gamble falls short

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If you’re looking for a feel-good story about how the Columbus Blue Jackets ignited hockey fandom in a town for the past month, you won’t find it here on this Tuesday in early May.

Fuzzy feelings are fleeting when a team that went all-in, risking future assets and big returns on key pending unrestricted free agents, crashes out of the playoffs in Round 2.

The talk or progress would be a sentiment I could be more bullish on if they weren’t fixing to lose two or three of their stars come the summer.

Yes, the Blue Jackets beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Swept them, no less, in emphatic fashion.

Sure, Columbus battled the Boston Bruins hard, taking them to Game 6 before being unable to solve Tuukka Rask

They showed tremendous tenacity during those two rounds and a sense of having bought into a suffocating style of hockey that stymied one of the best regular-season teams of all-time.

Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 1 against the Lightning will be memorable. As, too, will be the play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who gave the Blue Jackets a chance every night, as did the scoring touches of both Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, who proved to be crucial pieces that stepped up when the lights shined brightest.

The crowds, the chants, the atmosphere, the cannon — all special while it lasted.

John Tortorella said his team made huge steps forward. True. The exact makeup of the team as of Monday’s Game 6 made huge steps forward over the past month, and there’d be a lot of build on here if it weren’t for this dark cloud that’s also been hovering over the team.

There’d be a reason to be optimistic if every player mentioned above were locked into varying lengths of long-term deals with the organization. The sad reality is they aren’t. And it seems almost certain at this point that they will lose both Panarin and Bobrovsky to free agency, and Duchene could walk to under the same circumstances if he so chooses.

Losing them is, at the very least, a step back, right?

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

General manager Jarmo Kekalainen gambled big here, so much so that he can probably skip his flight to Vancouver for this year’s draft because he won’t play a big part having only a third-round pick and Calgary’s seventh-round choice at the moment. (Not to mention no second- or third-round pick in 2020.)

The only thing that lasts forever in hockey is Stanley Cup banners and the engraving on hockey’s holy grail that goes with it.

Hockey’s a sport where if you’re not first, your last. You can raise feel-good banners, but they become the butt-end of jokes rather than revered pieces of fabric.

When the dust settles in or around July 1, the Blue Jackets could be without their top scorer, their No. 1 goaltender and the man they sold a good acre or two of the farm to get at the NHL trade deadline.

Per CapFriendly, Columbus’ projected cap space heading into next year is in the $27 million range. Can that coerce a No. 1 to sign in free agency if Bobrovsky leaves? Maybe, but the No. 1 goalie pool this year is slim at best.

Can it replace a 27-year-old superstar in Panarin? What about a 28-year-old point-per-game player in Duchene?

Kekalainen’s wand is going to need a full charge to pull off that kind of sorcery. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it’s a tall order in the highest degree.

Sure, the remaining players can draw on the experiences they had. Is there much to extract from that, however, if three big names are out?

“Next year who knows what’s going to happen?” said Cam Atkinson after Game 6. “Who’s going to be in this locker room?”

There’s a core in Columbus that will remain, however: Atkinson, Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Josh Anderson, and Nick Foligno, who’s a consummate captain.

But you don’t just magically regrow a couple of severed limbs. That takes detailed surgery and an unknown timeframe get back to full strength.

Gambles, however well calculated they may be, are still gambles at the end of the day.

Kekalainen pushed all in and got caught by a better hand.

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

Can Bruins’ top line break cold streak in Game 4?

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The Blue Jackets have introduced tough times for the Bruins’ trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, arguably the all-around best line in the NHL. Things have gotten so sour, in fact, that said best line wasn’t even always intact during the Bruins’ 2-1 Game 3 loss to Columbus, as Pastrnak found himself drifting lower in the lineup.

For those three, things have been pretty grim as the Blue Jackets carry a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 on Thursday (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

  • Marchand doesn’t have a point in Round 2; in fact, he’s gone four straight playoff contests without a goal or an assist, as he wasn’t able to score in Boston’s Game 7 win against Toronto in Round 1.
  • Bergeron’s also failed to generate a point in three games against Columbus. Bergeron’s most recent point was a pretty irrelevant one, too, as he last scored via a very late empty-netter against the Maple Leafs while Game 7 was well out of reach.
  • Pastrnak is the only one of those three to generate any points so far in this series, as he scored a goal in Game 2. Even so, his frustrations are palpable, and again — he slid down the lineup as Boston can’t seem to crack the code with Sergei Bobrovsky.
  • There have also been mistakes, with penalties opening up precious power-play opportunities for the Blue Jackets. Those mistakes have sometimes resulted with the puck ending up in Boston’s net.

You could summarize many of the factors and frustrations behind this slump by looking at the frantic final minutes of Game 3, where Bobrovsky held firm as Boston tried to tie a 2-1 contest.

Using timeouts and other tricks, the Bruins managed to keep that big three (and also potential scorers like David Krejci, Jake DeBrusk, and Torey Krug) on the ice for about two minutes, but they still couldn’t beat Bobrovsky and a driven Blue Jackets defensive shell.

(Brandon Dubinsky ended up playing the final 2:34 of that finish. Wow.)

You can see portions of the final push in the highlights package, starting around the 3:06 mark:

Marchand, Pastrnak, and Bergeron are feeling plenty of heat from Bruins’ media and fans as they experience this unusual drought, and the tension can be seen in moments like Marchand indulging his worst instincts with that sucker punch on Scott Harrington.

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy is preaching discipline to Marchand, but he should also drive this point home to that top line: stay the course.

It can be unnerving to see possibilities go just short, yet at least the B’s big boys are getting their chances. Marchand generated three shots on goal in each of the past three games, plus five against Toronto in that Game 7. Bergeron’s fired away even more often, registering 11 SOG in these three contests. Pastrnak has that goal on nine SOG, and has been snake-bitten in general during his last five games, managing that lone goal (plus two assists) despite firing 16 SOG.

You can really get into the weeds and dock them some credit for two of those Blue Jackets games going to overtime but … still, that’s a pretty nice chunk of scoring chances.

Some might grumble at hearing “they’re due,” yet Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak absolutely seem that way.

Now, the uncomfortable thought is that they might run out of time before the bounces finally go their way. That’s one of the many painful things about playoff hockey; you don’t get the same margin of error when a series lasts about two weeks. Especially if, in the back of your mind, you’re wondering if a hot goalie has your number. Few goalies can create that thought quite like Bobrovsky can.

There’s also the unanswered questions about health. While Columbus healed up following that stunning Lightning sweep, Boston went the distance against Toronto, in a Round 1 series that was often nasty.

The Bruins faced plenty of injuries during the regular season, and top players weren’t immune, with Bergeron being limited to 65 games and Pastrnak to 66. Combine those factors, a physical Blue Jackets style, and a locked-in Bob, and it all starts to sound like a real grind.

Of course, everything seems worse when you’re not scoring, and not winning. Bergeron looks slower. Marchand’s antics seem self-destructive, rather than part of what makes him who he is. And maybe you linger on Pastrnak’s few flaws, rather than his prolific scoring and dazzling creativity.

All that can change quickly if the Bruins can win, and those three can produce some offense. That’s easier said than done, but if these three keep at it and shrug off the frustrations, they might just get back on track.

They’ll have a chance to do so as the Bruins face the Blue Jackets in Game 4 on Thursday (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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.

Bobrovsky’s playoff revival leading Blue Jackets

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When Jarmo Kekkalainen decided to push all of his chips to the center of the table by acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at the trade deadline, it was one of the boldest plays of any general manager in recent NHL history.

The potential for the entire thing to blow up in his face and leave him completely empty-handed was a very real one.

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ two best and most notable players — Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky — remained unsigned beyond this season, and Kekalainen added two more pending free agents to that mix while giving up several assets, and even more outrageous than all of that was the fact his team still wasn’t a lock to actually make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It was not only a situation where most GMs would play it safe by not adding anyone, it was a situation where many GMs might have sold off their biggest assets and punted on the season (and we saw that very situation play out in Minnesota this year and in St. Louis a year ago). But this was an organization that has given its fanbase nothing but disappointment in its nearly two decades of existence and had never experienced life outside of Round 1 in the playoffs on the rare occasion that it did make the playoffs.

So instead of giving the fans more reason to question the team and doubt the commitment, they went in. All in.

With Duchene and Dzingel, the Blue Jackets had what looked to be a pretty strong team on paper and one that might be capable of making some noise should it actually, you know, make the playoffs.

There was just one big question floating around the team.

Could they count on Bobrovsky in net? That may sound like a harsh question but his career in Columbus has been a tale of two extremes and makes it a completely fair question to ask.

His regular season performance? As good as you could possibly hope for from a starting NHL goalie. Between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 seasons there was not a single goalie in the NHL that had a better save percentage than his .923 mark. He also won Two Vezina Trophies, something that only 22 goalies in league history can claim, and was a top-five finisher in Hart Trophy voting twice. He wasn’t just good, he was great. That regular season performance is on the fringes of a Hall of Fame career if for no other reason than the Vezinas, as 18 of the 22 goalies that have won multiple Vezinas are in the Hall of Fame.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The problem has always been that once the regular season ends and the playoffs begin, something has happened to Bobrovsky’s performance, and it hasn’t been pretty.

I hate basing narratives around a player based on the small sample sizes of data the playoffs produce because there are so many variables that go into what happens during those games, and sometimes a player can simply go through a cold streak in the spring without it being a defining moment for their season or career. But with Bobrovsky it happened so consistently and so regularly (and so badly) that it has been impossible to ignore.

Before this season his career postseason save percentage was a horrific .899. Of the 29 goalies that appeared in at least 20 playoff games since the start of the 2010-11 season (when Bobrovsky entered the NHL) only one of them (Ilya Bryzgalov) had a worse number, while only three others (Brian Elliott, Devan Dubnyk, and Antti Niemi) had a number lower than even .910.

He wasn’t just the worst performing postseason goalie in the NHL, he was the worst performing postseason goalie by a significant margin. It was a jarring difference in performance and it made it easy to have doubts about what the Blue Jackets could do this postseason if he didn’t improve on it dramatically, especially with a first-round matchup against the best offensive team of this era.

It wasn’t a stretch to say that all of the pressure the Blue Jackets were facing after their trades was on the shoulders of their starting goalie, because a repeat performance of postseasons past would have completely sunk them no matter what Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel, or any of their other top players were able to do.

One thing you might be able to say about his postseason performance was that almost all of those games came against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, two teams that are loaded with offensive superstars, and two of which went on to win the Stanley Cup after defeating Bobrovsky. A lot of great goalies have looked bad at times against those teams, and Bobrovsky had the unfortunate bad luck of having to run into them in the first round in three consecutive playoff appearances.

Still, the performance is what it is and you can’t hide from the numbers. The Bobrovsky question was a very real one.

Just six games into the 2019 playoffs, he’s done his part to erase any of the doubts that may have existed due to his past postseason performances because he has been outstanding from the start of the very first game.

In Round 1, he helped shut down the high-powered Tampa offense and out-dueled a back-to-back Vezina finalist in Andrei Vasileskiy.

Even though the Blue Jackets dropped Game 1 against the Boston Bruins in Round 2, it wasn’t necessarily due to anything Bobrovsky did or did not do, while he was probably the single biggest reason they had a chance to even the series in Game 2, especially due to his play in overtime where he made highlight reel save after highlight reel save.

His .930 save percentage is third behind only Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop among all goalies for the playoffs that have been a redemption tour of sorts for him.

This also couldn’t have happened at a better time for Bobrovsky as he prepares to enter unrestricted free agency this July. Whether he changes his mind and re-signs in Columbus or goes elsewhere there is nothing that is going to boost his value as much as a dominant postseason run, and perhaps one that takes the Blue Jackets deep in the postseason.

With the talent the Blue Jackets now have at forward with Panarin, Duchene, Cam Atkinson, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and on defense, where Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are a powerhouse duo at the top of their blue line, the fate of their postseason success was always going to be tied to what they could get out of Bobrovsky. With him playing the way he has so far the sky is the limit for this team.

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.