It was a busy day for the always-informative Aaron Portzline of The Athletic, reacting to the news that intriguing prospect Alexandre Texier was on his way to North America to join the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters and begin his Columbus Blue Jackets career. However, Portzline didn’t stop there, as he had news on a couple more top prospects in the Columbus pipeline. The most pressing report comes out of Switzerland, where Portzline notes star goalie Elvis Merzlikins and his NLA club, HC Lugano, are down 3-0 in their first-round series against EV Zug and on the brink of elimination. Game Four will take place on Saturday and, should that be the end Lugano’s season, it could begin the anticipated move for Merzlikins across the Atlantic. While Merzlikins has struggled against the higher-seeded playoff opponent, it won’t erase the merits of yet another strong regular season for the 24-year-old keeper, who logged a .921 save percentage for the second straight year and a his best goals against average as a starter at 2.44. Merzlikins has developed nicely in Switzerland, but it is time for the promising Latvian netminder to move on. With Sergei Bobrovsky moving on from Columbus as a free agent this summer, Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo are currently the only candidates to take over as starter barring an addition to the roster this off-season. Either way, the exciting young goalie will almost certainly make his NHL debut in 2019-20. Portzline expects Merzlikins to finish the season in North America, but that likely means joining Texier on the Monsters, not supplanting any of the three goalies currently on the Blue Jackets roster.
- Another top Blue Jackets prospect is not as likely to make the jump to North America this season. Portzline writes that up-and-coming Swedish forward Emil Bemstrom looks unlikely to finish the year with Columbus or an affiliate due to other commitments. Bemstrom’s team in the Swedish Hockey League, Djurgardens IF, are the four seed in the upcoming postseason. The team is likely to be competitive in the first round, if not advance beyond that stage. If and when they are knocked out, Portzline states the Blue Jackets do not expect him to immediately join them. Instead, Portzline believes he could be a candidate to play for Sweden’s entry into the World Championships this spring. A fourth-round pick just two year’s ago, Bemstrom’s rise to top prospect status has been meteoric and has been capped off with an SHL season this year in which he is second in scoring for Djurgardens with 35 points in 47 games at just 19 years old. From relative obscurity, Bemstrom has emerged as arguably the best drafted prospect in Sweden this year and could help Columbus out as early as next season. Just don’t expect the jump in the coming weeks.
- In a Q&A piece today, Portzline addressed a forgotten issue that may have led to the breakdown in the relationship between Bobrovksy and the Blue Jackets. After a lackluster postseason effort in 2017, many questioned whether Bobrovksy’s head was in the right place. Although no team officials or major media personalities echoed the sentiment, Bobrovsky reacted very negatively to the idea that he “needed a sports psychologist”. Reminded of that ordeal two years later, Portzline writes that this absolutely was a major issue that has plagued Bobrovsky. In fact, after another early exit from the playoffs last year, the comments may have a permanent place in the otherwise stellar goaltender’s head. Portzline has spoken with several Russian media members who have confirmed that the stigma attached to therapy and mental illness in the country is very different than in North America. They believe that the insinuations Bobrovsky faced were very offensive to him and could have led to a desire to leave Columbus. The move now seems inevitable, but given the slight downturn in Bobrovsky’s regular season play this year, one has to wonder if another poor performance in the playoffs further mess with his confidence and perhaps even hurt his value on the open market