The Columbus Blue Jackets have been one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments this season. They lost their first three games of the year – by a 14-5 combined margin – and currently are on another three-game losing skid, being outscored 17-4 in that span, and by 11-1 in their most recent two games. They have the worst goals-against average in the league, at 4.40 goals-for-per-game, and it doesn’t look like any cavalry is on the horizon to save them.
As we regularly state, you can’t blame goaltenders solely for their team’s struggles. You need a smart, fast, mobile defense corps, and a defensively-committed group of forwards to backcheck like madmen if you’re going to be one of the best teams in the league in their own zone. Columbus made some big changes this off-season, but GM Jarmo Kekalainen was unable to improve his collection of blueliners – unless you believe journeyman and unrestricted free agent acquisition Erik Gudbranson is a difference-maker, and we don’t – and marquee addition Johnny Gaudreau is not a Selke Trophy candidate.
That puts the heat on current Blue Jackets goalies Elvis Merzlikins and Daniil Tarasov, neither of whom has asserted themselves as an elite NHL netminder thus far this season.
But before we get into the goaltender issues, we’d be remiss if we didn’t address the despicable fan abuse Merzlikins and his family have been receiving. Merzlikins’ wife, Aleksandra, took to her social media account over the weekend to alert everyone to the indefensible comments she and her husband have been receiving of late.
“I heard, ‘You, your kid and your husband should die,’, ‘You and your husband are trash,’ ” Aleksandra Merzlikins wrote. “(A)t the same time, when he plays good, it’s ‘You guys are amazing,’ ‘We love you,’ ‘Can we get a picture?’…touching my son, screaming his name (he’s one-year-old), and thanks to all of this, he will not be coming with me to games anymore to see his dad, because, honestly, I’m scared of him being there.”
Certainly, fans at games are well within their rights to boo any player they choose to, but these actions are beyond the line and need to be called out every time someone thinks they can get away with this garbage. There is no place in the NHL, or any sporting event, for goofs like the ones who’ve been abusing Merzlikins, and we all need to stand behind him, or any player and their families who have to endure this.
With that said, there is no question Columbus’ netminding tandem has been subpar and must be better if the Blue Jackets have any hope of digging out from their current hole and challenging for a playoff berth in the highly-competitive Metropolitan Division. Merzlikins’ individual statistics – including a .864 save percentage and a 4.75 goals-against average – are simply not good enough, and his understudy, Tarasov, hasn’t been much better (.893 SP, 3.57 G.A.A.).
The organization’s other option, longtime franchise member Joonas Korpisalo, has been sidelined since undergoing hip surgery in March, but the team just reactivated him from injured reserve, and he’s likely to see action very soon. However, his individual numbers last year (including an .877 SP and 3.30 G.A.A.) don’t inspire confidence he’ll move the needle between the pipes.
As noted, the rest of the Blue Jackets have to help out their goalies in a way they have yet to this season. You need a program to identify any D-man other than top blueliner Zach Werenski and Gudbranson, and although they’re a big group of blueliners – everyone other than 6-foot-1 D-man Gavin Bayreuther, every member of the current group is 6-foot-2 or taller – they’re not particularly adept at limiting high-risk scoring chances by the opposition.
As we’ve said in other stories, there are no proven goaltenders available on the trade market at the moment, so Kekalainen is more or less stuck with the goalies and the defense corps he has. The onus is on those defenders, and the forwards, to find a way to ratchet up their defensive play. Otherwise, it’s going to be a very long season for Columbus – longer than it already feels.
When you have great goaltending, everything else feels easier. When you don’t, everything else feels much more difficult. This is the main conundrum for the Blue Jackets in the short term. They’re salary-capped-out, and no other NHL GM is going to be charitable for them in terms of roster moves. It’s a clear problem, with no clear solution. And although some fans need to tone down their frustrations right away, you can see why many Columbus fans are not optimistic improvement is coming soon.