Rangers’ young talent is only thing that will make rebuild a success

The New York Rangers underwent some pretty drastic changes this offseason in an effort to turn their ongoing rebuild into a success.

General manager Jeff Gorton was fired and replaced by Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn, the man hired to usher in the young talent of this rebuilding phase, was replaced by Gerard Gallant. They also made a little bit of a philosophical shift to the roster by targeting toughness — and a lot of it — by bringing in Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Jarred Tinordi, and Patric Nemeth to fill out the bottom of the lineup.

When it comes to the latter point, it is really easy to connect the dots back to that late season game against the Washington Capitals when they had their run-in with Tom Wilson that resulted in Wilson being fined, the Rangers blasting the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the league fining them $250,000 for said criticism. It was a wild sequence of events.

The Rangers can say the Wilson incident — or the mere presence of Wilson in their division — was not the inspiration for those moves all they want, but it is too much of a coincidence that they decided to take that direction at this point in time.

[Related: NHL Rink Wrap: Begin the Kraken; Tom Wilson vs. Rangers]

They would also not be the first team in the Metropolitan Division to have that sequence of events play out where Wilson angers them, they criticize the league’s inaction, and then try to take matters into their own hands by changing the roster. Heck, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried the exact same thing with the exact same Wilson nemesis (Reaves) a couple of years ago. It is the exact same playbook Wilson pushes teams to follow for some reason.

So with all of that in mind it is kind of fitting that the Rangers open their 2021-22 season by playing Wilson and the Capitals so all of this chaos can play out right from the start.

But for all of the bluster about Reaves’ addition, and all of the changes they made behind the bench and the front office, there is only one thing that is going to make the Rangers’ rebuild a success. And it has absolutely nothing to do with any of those offseason changes.

The success or failure of the Rangers’ rebuild depends entirely on the development of their recent top draft picks and prospects, and them becoming franchise cornerstones.

Without that, everything else is simply window dressing and focus on a particular secondary narrative.

Having established stars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad certainly helps a rebuild. As does lucking your way into an Adam Fox that only wants to play for your team. But when you get the opportunity to pick in the top-10 (and top-two!) as often as the Rangers have over the past few years you can not miss on them. Because if you get them right, you are probably going to have a Stanley Cup in your future.

So far, the early returns for the Rangers have been less than encouraging. And that might be the most concerning element of the team’s current trajectory.

Between 2017 and 2020 the Rangers had eight first round draft picks, including four picks in the top-10. The early returns so far have been mixed.

[Related: Rangers extend Zibanejad]

The Rangers already jettisoned one of those top-10 picks (Lias Andersson) last year for a second-round draft pick, while another, Vitali Kravtsov, might soon be on his way out the door after he failed to make the opening day roster and did not report to the American Hockey League. He has reportedly been given permission to seek a trade with other clubs. To this point, the Rangers received five goals in 86 man games from those two players. Not great.

The jury is still very much out on the other late first-round picks. Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller have shown flashes of impact potential in the NHL, but are not consistently there yet.

All of that is just part of what makes the most recent top picks, No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, so important.

They are ultimately going to be the players that dictate where this thing goes and if it works.

Kakko is entering what might be a pivotal year in his development and if he is going to become a star player you would want to think it would start to happen this season. He took a significant step forward in a lot of ways last year, becoming one of the Rangers’ best possession drivers and scoring chance creators. It did not always translate into offense, though, or make a noticeable difference in his individual production. Some of that could have been how he was used and the talent he had around him, not to mention the number of minutes he received. He is slated to start Wednesday’s game on the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, which should put him in a position to succeed.

Then there is Lafrenière. After an extremely slow start to his rookie season he started to flash some of the talent and potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick later in the season and finished strong, perhaps setting the stage for a big sophomore year. He is opening Wednesday night on the top line alongside Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Like Kakko, it is an ideal situation for him to thrive in.

If you look at pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era almost all of them have at least one top-two pick on their roster that became a superstar. In some cases, more than one. Those players, if you get them right, are franchise changers and championship building blocks.

So much focus this offseason has been spent on the Rangers’ changes and what they might mean for the culture and attitude around the team’s mindset. But if the potential young impact players do not become actual impact players, none of it is going to matter.

Maple Leafs, Rangers, Oilers among teams facing most pressure to win this season

The start of a new season always brings optimism for most fan bases.

Maybe this is your team’s year. Maybe that free agent addition or offseason trade will bring your team that Stanley Cup you have been waiting for. Or perhaps your team going through a perpetual rebuild finally breaks through and makes the playoffs. It is a clean slate and new season for everybody.

Some teams, though, enter the season facing immense pressure where a certain level needs to be reached for the season to be a success.

Here we are going to look at seven teams around the NHL that are facing the most pressure to win this season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

No team has the spotlight on it more this this season than the Maple Leafs. They are six years into this thing with this core and all they have to show for it is one North Division championship and five consecutive first-round exits.

Do you know who that is good enough for? Nobody. Not ownership. Not the fans. Definitely not the Toronto media. Certainly not the players. Through all of those postseason disappointments the Maple Leafs have kept their core together and not made dramatic changes, outside of swapping Mike Babcock for Sheldon Keefe behind the bench.

That will almost certainly not continue through a sixth consecutive First Round exit. There is certainly pressure for Auston Matthew and John Tavares to be the duo that finally brings the Stanley Cup back to Toronto, but before they can do that they have to get through the First Round of the playoffs. There is no way another First Round exit results in anything other than wholesale changes to the team.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights are a fascinating situation because they have been wildly successful during their first four years in the NHL, reaching the semifinals three times already.

It is the most incredible start to a franchise in the modern NHL.

It has also raised the bar to a nearly unreachable level. There is already pressure for this team to win it all, especially after back-to-back losses in the Conference Finals to teams that they were favorites against. The Golden Knights are ruthless in their quest for a championship and will make whatever change they need to make. Fire the coach that took you to the Stanley Cup Final in year one? Done. Toss aside the face of your franchise and reigning Vezina Trophy winner? No problem! There is not a blockbuster move that this team is not interested in, and they will do whatever it takes to make it happen. If they do not make another deep playoff run there could be another round of dramatic changes on the way.

Colorado Avalanche

The Avalanche are still highly regarded as one of the league’s best teams and Stanley Cup favorites. But they have hit the Second Round ceiling. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But at some point there is going to be pressure on this group to do something more. We saw what happened with Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals every time they lost in the Second Round. Heck, we saw what happened to the Tampa Bay Lightning for losing in the Conference Final every year (same is true with Vegas). Eventually people want to see those teams and superstar players win, and doubt starts to creep in when they do not. If the Avalanche want to avoid that criticism, a trip to the Western Conference Final would be a good place to start.

New York Rangers

The Rangers’ rebuild seemed to be going along smoothly. They have accumulate a ton of young talent in the form of high draft picks, they have an MVP candidate in Artemi Panarin, they have a Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox, and a young franchise goalie in Igor Shesterkin. They have not yet established themselves as a playoff team, but they are on the right track. That still was not enough — or fast enough — for ownership. They fired coach David Quinn, changed general managers, and made some pretty significant changes to the roster by bringing in players like Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow this offseason. It is clear what ownership wants to see this season: The playoffs. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.

Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago’s only playoff appearance over the past four years was the 2019-20 bubble season when they snuck in as the 23rd ranked team. Their drop off from Stanley Cup contender to bottom-tier team has been sudden and unforgiving.

They spent the offseason spending a ton of money to build the team back up, acquiring Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, and Seth Jones, spending a huge amount of money in the process. It is pretty clear they abandoned the whole idea of a long-term rebuild with those moves and are back focussed on trying to make the playoffs right now.

Trying to salvage what is left of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane‘s careers with the team? Trying to distract from the sexual assault lawsuits the team is facing? Maybe a little of both? Whatever it is, any team that spend the amount of money the Blackhawks spend this offseason in acquiring the veterans it acquired is going to be expected to win. If they do not make the playoffs does Stan Bowman stay on board through that?

(Some might ask how he has stayed on board to this point.)

Edmonton Oilers

Perhaps the only team that is facing pressure that is even somewhat comparable to Toronto’s.

The Oilers have the two best offensive players in the world in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, both of whom are in the prime of their careers. They have combined to win three of the past five MVP awards and the type of players you should be building a championship contender around. Especially by this point in their careers.

The Oilers, though, have mostly done nothing with them. They have just two playoff appearances to show for them, only one playoff series win, and this past year they could not even get a single playoff win against a good, but not great Winnipeg Jets team. That is just not good enough, and there is reason to be skeptical of their chances this season given their offseason moves, the makeup of their defense, and the question marks in goal.

Most teams never get one player like McDavid or Draisaitl, let alone two at the same time in their primes. It is maddening to see them go to waste. Every year they do not take a step forward seems like a wasted year.

Florida Panthers

This is definitely not a Stanley Cup or bust type of season, but here is a somewhat wild fact about the Panthers — they have never made the Stanley Cup playoffs two years in a row. Ever. Not ever in their entire existence of more nearly three decades. That is stunning. They have a legitimate chance to make that happen this season. The 2020-21 season was arguably the best single season in the history of the franchise, and this year’s version looks even better following the offseason additions of Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton, as well as the possible emergence of Spencer Knight in goal.

The biggest reason the Panthers have struggled to develop a consistent following in South Florida is they have never given the fan base a reason to be excited. This group has a chance to do that. Aleksander Barkov is signed long-term, the roster is outstanding, they have a chance to become a steady playoff team with this core. They can not lose that progress they started a year ago. They have to keep moving forward.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

+2200 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets bet on Elvis Merzlikins with five-year extension

Which bad Elvis joke are you going to dust off for this one? The smart money is on “Elvis stays in the building,” as the Blue Jackets signed Merzlikins to a five-year extension on Tuesday.

That Merzlikins extension costs the Blue Jackets $5.4M per season (five years, $27M overall) starting in 2022-23. Merzlikins, 27, carries a $4M cap hit during the 2021-22 season.

“Goaltending is a position of strength for our team and Elvis Merzlikins has been an important part of that over the past two seasons so we are very excited to have agreed to terms on a contract extension that will keep him in Columbus for at least the next six years,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said via the team’s release. “He is big, athletic and has a tremendous passion for the game and we believe he will be an integral part of our success in the coming years.”

Blue Jackets gamble on Merzlikins with five-year extension

At first blush, it seems like quite the gamble by Kekalainen.

Despite already being 27, Merzlikins doesn’t have a ton of NHL experience. So far, he only has 61 regular season and two playoff games under his belt.

The Blue Jackets could’ve merely decided to wait and see how the 2021-22 season played out in net. Joonas Korpisalo (27, $2.8M cap hit) is entering a contract year, so they could’ve allowed the two netminders to battle it out with huge motivation.

Of course, that scenario introduces more uncertainty to a team that keeps losing key players like Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and previously, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Earlier during the offseason, the Blue Jackets handed Zach Werenski an eyebrow-raising six-year, $57.5M extension. With extensions to Werenski, Merzlikins, and Boone Jenner, along with term for players like Jakub Voracek and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Blue Jackets can project more stability.

Yet, in some cases, there’s an air of desperation.

[2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Merzlikins ranks as an especially intriguing bet, though.

Again, his NHL experience is limited. That said, credit Merzlikins for nailing just about every opportunity so far.

  • As a rookie in 2019-20, Merzlikins went 13-9-8 with a strong .923 save percentage in 33 games. He generated 12.1 Goals Saved Against Average, by Hockey Reference’s version of the stat.
  • That offseason, Merzlikins only appeared in two playoff games. Still, he notched a .946 save percentage in those appearances. Strong work all around that season.
  • In 2020-21, Merzlikins went 8-12-5, and his save percentage slipped to .916. That’s perfectly respectable when you consider how disastrous the Blue Jackets were last season. His GSAA was 7.0, indicating the Merzlikins did his job.
  • Now, you can only extrapolate so much from his work over six seasons in the Swiss league. Still, his numbers mostly look good there, too.

So, at first, it does still seem like a significant risk. That said, if Merzlikins can deliver above-average goaltending (or even elite work) during much of that contract, it could also be another clever-as-a-fox moment from Kekalainen.

If the Blue Jackets are weak again in 2021-22, would this set the stage for Joonas Korpisalo being an intriguing trade target, too? Might their defense crater after a coaching change?

There are a lot of interesting factors that could play into how we perceive the Blue Jackets signing Merzlikins to that extension. Whether it works out or not, it’s an important part of the team’s future.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.