August 11, 2020. Brayden Point scored in the fifth overtime to thrust the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 1-0 series lead in the playoff bubble, in the first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Bolts would go on to take revenge over the same CBJ team that swept them out of the playoffs just 16 months earlier – but this night was mostly remembered for the legendary, modern day league-record 85 save performance from Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.
Suddenly thrust into the spotlight, the long-time backup to Sergei Bobrovsky seemed to be on his way to stardom. Unfortunately for Joonas and the Blue Jackets, things mostly went downhill after this series. In the 2020-21 season, his save percentage dipped to 89.4% – then fell to 87.7% in 21-22. Over the course of these two seasons, he started 48 games – winning just 16 of them.
It goes without saying that a goaltender’s numbers (especially wins and goals against average), shouldn’t always be blamed on just the goaltender. The two seasons of decline were in seasons where the Blue Jackets team went through a rapid roster turnover and “reload”. Gone were two-way centers Alexander Wennberg, Pierre-Luc-Dubois, and Riley Nash. Defenseman Seth Jones – who skated more than 65 minutes of that five overtime game – also left Columbus.
But if you compare Joonas with the club’s other goaltender over the same period of time, it’s hard to look past his struggles. Elvis Merzlikins played through the same turnover in Columbus, and put up a solid 91.0% save percentage; winning 35 of his 78 starts in that time. They played behind the same young defense, so why did they produce so differently?
Korpisalo’s 2021-22 season ended in February as he underwent hip surgery, which is likely, at least partially to blame for his struggles in the most recent season. It’s possible this was a nagging injury that he tried to play through for quite a while. With the goaltending position being such a physical, up and down role, it definitely could be the main factor in his declining play.
The Blue Jackets offered Korpisalo a one-year contract worth $1.3m, preventing him from becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. I see this signing as a win for both sides. For Korpisalo, he gets a chance to redeem himself and improve his value this season. While he enters as the likely backup to Merzlikins, he gets a guaranteed NHL job to prove that he’s still capable of being a goaltender at the highest level. For the Blue Jackets, they get a cheap backup goaltender who’s a known entity. If Korpisalo can rediscover his game, they have a solid 1-2 combo in goal that could help thrust the team back into playoff contention. This move also allows Daniil Tarasov another year of development in the AHL, where he needs to start games and gain experience.
Even though he doesn’t likely factor into the team’s long-term plans, keeping Korpisalo around this year was the right move by the Blue Jackets. He’s given a lot to this organization and deserves one more shot. If he can take advantage of his opportunities this season, his value could skyrocket. And that would be the best thing to happen for all involved.