As the Blue Jacket season continues to drift into something we all want to forget as soon as it ends, there aren’t many positives we can look at from this team. The list of injuries and lack of competitiveness has taken most of the fun out of the season. But it’s not all lost, as one of the most lovable Jacket players of all-time has rediscovered his game: goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.
It’s hard to believe that Joonas has been here for 8 seasons. He served as the long-time backup for Sergei Bobrovsky, before being thrust into the starter’s role for the 2019-20 season. That season was tumultuous from the offset as the team lost most of its talent the summer before (including Bobrovsky).
They started slowly, then Joonas was injured and Elvis Merzlikins was thrust into the starter’s crease. He stole the show, going on a heater that helped the team creep back into a playoff spot before the league-wide COVID pause. The playoff bubble came that summer, with Joonas looking every bit the part of a starting goalie in the NHL – including one legendary 85-save performance.
But Joonas Korpisalo was not the same goaltender for the next two seasons. In 2020-21, his save percentage dipped to 89.4%. Last season, he stopped just 87.7% of his shots, while his goals against average ballooned to 4.15(!) per game. He won just 16 of 48 starts over this span, leading many (including yours truly) to believe that his time in Columbus was set to end.
What we did not know, was that Joonas was dealing with a nagging hip injury that would require surgery. Rather than seeing him dealt to a contending team at last year’s trade deadline; we lost him for the season due to this surgery, which sidelined him from March 14, until his November 5 return to play.
GM Jarmo Kekalainen did the right thing this summer, signing Korpisalo to a one year, $1.3m contract to give him one more chance in the NHL. Having waited patiently for his turn and laying it all out for the franchise over his career, Joonas deserved that chance more than anyone else on the free agent market.
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The best news: since coming back, he’s been a different player again. For a team that has struggled to find any kind of consistency this year, Joonas has quietly given them stability in goal in the games he’s played, posting a 91.1% save percentage and winning 5 of his 14 starts. To put that into perspective, the team has won just 6 of their 22 games when one of the other goaltenders (Merzlikins or Daniil Tarasov) gets a start.
What’s most encouraging about his play is that he’s making a lot of his saves look easy again, which is something we couldn’t say for the previous two years. He’s in position ahead of a lot of the shots he’s facing, and is squared and ready to not only make the save, but prevent second and third chances as well.
His play is so good that it’s hard to argue against him being the starter on a nightly basis, ahead of a struggling Merzlikins. He’s giving the team a chance to stay in games that they really have no business being close in, and that’s all you can really ask from a goaltender on a rebuilding team.
With the short term and low cap hit, he has a very tradeable contract that should bring a positive return to the Jackets at the trade deadline. If the team is so inclined, they can likely get a second or third round pick in exchange for him – which would not have been the case last year. If that happens, consider this $1.3m well spent.
But hear me out for a second: does the strong play of Joonas Korpisalo potentially open the door to an Elvis Merzlikins trade?
There are several teams on the bubble who are in dire need of goaltending this year and beyond. With Merzlikins signed for the next four years at a palatable $5.4m AAV, would a team be willing to take a chance on him? A change of scenery might be just what his own career needs for rejuvenation, after the emotional roller coaster he’s been on for the last two years in Columbus.
Elvis would have his say in a potential landing point as he has a 10-team no trade list. But, with Daniil Tarasov waiting in the wings and the resurgence of Korpisalo, the team might decide to go in an unplanned direction in goal. We’ll discuss this more in the coming weeks.
No matter how the deadline shakes up, Joonas Korpisalo has set himself into a prime position to cash in with a long-term contract this summer. Whether that’s in Columbus or elsewhere, that’s really good news for a guy who has given his all to this team.