Prospect Report: Kivlenieks, Tarasov highlight goalie pipeline
For years, the Blue Jackets have had a rather settled goaltending situation.
From 2013-19, there wasn’t much doubt Sergei Bobrovsky would be the starter, as the best goaltender in CBJ history won two Vezina Trophies with the team and patrolled the pipes, when healthy, for the majority of all seven seasons of his tenure.
The only question generally during Bobrovsky’s tenure was who would be the backup, with Curtis McElhinney eventually ceding the reserve spot to Joonas Korpisalo for the last few years of Bob’s time.
Then, when Bobrovksy left in free agency in the summer of 2019, Korpisalo was elevated and joined by Elvis Merzlikins, a 2014 draft pick who eventually signed with the Jackets in 2019. The past two years, Korpisalo and Merzlikins have shared the crease, with the former starting 66 games in that span and the latter getting the nod 54 times.
But things are reaching a bit of a crossroads now. With both Korpisalo and Merzlikins set to reach unrestricted free agency after the upcoming season and both admitting that splitting the net for a third year wouldn’t be their preferred option, one could very well be traded this offseason.
There’s also the possibility that the team’s third stringer the past few years, Matiss Kivlenieks, could be taken by Seattle in the expansion draft after a strong showing for Latvia at this year’s World Championships. Add in the move of highly touted prospect Daniil Tarasov to North America this year and the potential CBJ goalie of the future is now set to learn stateside for the upcoming seasons.
So there are moving parts, but the good news is the Jackets — even after the trade of Finnish netminder Veini Vehvilainen to Toronto for Mikko Lehtonen this year — still have a pretty strong goaltending pipeline.
Here’s a look at how the team’s prospects between the pipes did this past season.
Kivlenieks has become a familiar name to CBJ fans the past two years, as the Latvian made his debut during the 2019-20 campaign and then played the last two games for the Jackets this past season. He’s taken the hard road to get where he is — Kivlenieks moved from his home country to play Tier III hockey in Minnesota as a teenager — and has shown his potential at the NHL level, posting a combined 3.09 GAA and .898 save percentage in eight NHL games.
But while he had some up-and-down years at the AHL level after signing with the Jackets — he was forced to play 43 games as a rookie in 2017-18, then played just 14 AHL games the next year because of injury — Kivlenieks had a strong showing with the Cleveland Monsters, posting a 2.25 GAA and .929 save percentage in eight games. The 24-year-old then notched a .922 save percentage with four games with Latvia at the Worlds, and assuming the Kraken don’t select him in the expansion draft, he seems like he could be slotted as the Jackets’ backup this upcoming season.
Meanwhile, Tarasov made his much-anticipated North American debut this year with Cleveland after an impressive season with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL. Signed to an entry-level deal with the Jackets, Tarasov likely would have spent the entire season with the Monsters in a non-pandemic year, but he was still able to play high-level games in the KHL to start the campaign and went 11-3-2 with a 2.07 GAA and .925 save percentage with Salavat Yulaev in 16 games.
Boasting tremendous size and excellent athleticism, the 22-year-old then came to Cleveland at the end of the KHL season and got his feet wet on the smaller rink. Tarasov, a 2017 third-round pick, was 4-2-0 with the Monsters and posted a 3.16 GAA and .896 save percentage, and it seems likely he’ll spend next year as the main man in net for Cleveland as he builds up his experience at the AHL level.
With the trade of Vehvilainen, the Jackets have just one more player in the pipeline in 2016 sixth-round pick Peter Thome, but the team’s rights to sign him will expire Aug. 15. The 24-year-old Thome spent the past three seasons with perennial college power North Dakota, but he was largely relegated to a reserve role this year behind one of the top goaltenders in the nation, recent Dallas signee Adam Scheel.
In all, the tall, athletic netminder played just five games this past year with the Fighting Hawks, notching a 2.83 GAA and .872 save percentage. He has since transferred to St. Thomas, where the Minnesota native is expected to get a chance to start with his home-state school that has been elevated to Division I for the upcoming campaign.
Lastly, a fond happy trails to Brad Thiessen, who was not a prospect but has been a key part of the CBJ organization since joining the Monsters in 2015. He’s spent the past few years as the de facto goaltending coach in Cleveland while also playing in games when the need arose, and the 35-year-old Thiessen suited up in 12 games this past season with the Monsters before announcing his retirement recently.