As expected, the Columbus Blue Jackets have officially signed goaltender Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year entry-level contract. The experienced Latvian netminder will burn through his deal this season, making him a restricted free agent in the summer but still under Columbus control. GM Jarmo Kekalainen had this to say about the newest member of the Blue Jackets organization:
Elvis Merzlikins is a big, athletic goaltender who has performed at a very high level in the Swiss League with Lugano and is ready to take the next step in his career. We think he is the best goaltender outside of the NHL right now and are excited about his future with our organization.
The 24-year old Merzlikins has shown what he can do against top competition several times in the past, most notably during the last three World Championships. The 6’3″ goaltender has led Latvia to respectable finishes despite their team being overpowered, racking up save after save against the more traditional hockey nations. Playing in Switzerland, he has twice won the Goaltender of the Year award and is usually a force in the playoffs—this year notwithstanding.
Originally selected in the third round five years ago, Merzlikins was happy to stay overseas until now. With Sergei Bobrovsky entrenched as the Columbus starter there was little opportunity for him to play in the NHL, but that all may be changing quite soon. Bobrovsky is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, meaning there is a clear path to the starter spot for Merzlikins if he can continue to produce on the ice. That’s certainly not guaranteed, but Kekalainen isn’t alone in his assessment that Merzlikins is among the best goaltenders in the world outside of the NHL.
It will be interesting to see what kind of deal the two sides agree upon this summer. The league just saw Mikko Koskinen come into the NHL on a $2.5MM deal, only to be given a three-year $13.5MM extension before he’d even made 30 starts for the Edmonton Oilers. Koskinen was much older and had the benefit of being an unrestricted free agent, but still got paid before really showing what he could do over a long stretch. The Colorado Avalanche similarly signed Pavel Francouz last summer out of the KHL, but for only $690K. Francouz has been excellent in the AHL, but appeared in only two games for the Avalanche earlier on this season.
Interestingly Joonas Korpisalo (restricted), Keith Kinkaid (unrestricted) and Jean-Francois Berube (unrestricted) are all free agents this summer, meaning the Blue Jackets currently only have one goaltender—Matiss Kivlenieks, who has exactly zero games of NHL experience—under contract for next season. While that is a frightening situation for a team expecting to compete for the Stanley Cup, it also gives them ample flexibility to decide how to fill their net in 2019-20. Merzlikins is unlikely to get any NHL experience this year, but you can be sure he’ll be in the net at some point next season for Columbus.