Written by Cat Silverman/ The Athletic
-This season, the Swiss National League’s HC Lugano isn’t necessarily an easy team to play behind. They sit on a 7-7 record and are ranked eighth, just a few months removed from their trip to the championship round of the postseason.
With an aging roster, the team still has some talent left. Despite that, though, they’re making life difficult for the team’s goaltenders, including team starter and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Elvis Merzlikins. The nearly 33 shots against per game that they allow are the second most across the Swiss National League. Only the floundering SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, who have lost all but two of their games this year, are more porous.
Yet, despite the heavy workload, they’re still currently in a playoff spot. It’s the last playoff spot, but it’s a ways from where the Lakers sit in the league basement.
That’s clearly been in large part because of how Merzlikins has played. He and his backup, 22-year-old Austrian goaltender Stefan Muller, have bailed their team out night and again so far. Muller has a .939 save percentage in his lone National League start, and Merzlikins’ .931 save percentage in all situations spans a 13-game sample size already. He faces more shots per game than any other goaltender, yet has the best save percentage in the slot of any goaltender who has more than 150 shots faced from that area so far.
Part of that, of course, is his demeanor. Despite a barrage of shots faced each night so far, the 24-year-old from Riga, Latvia, has held his composure well.
A big part of that, though, has been a fundamental shift in his game — which should not only help him stay afloat this year, but should excite the fans hoping for a fairly smooth transition when he finally makes his way across the pond.
Merzlikins has been working with goaltending coach Michael Lawrence for going on two seasons now, and the pair have made a tough — but necessary — shift in the way the goaltender stands in the process.
Lawrence explained that it’s been an ongoing project, with the focus being to narrow Merzlikins’ stance in order to both give him extra power and control and to help him utilize his frame properly.
When the pair started to work together, Merzlikins had a much wider stance than he needed, his skates so far out that he was hinging forward to maintain his balance.
The problem, of course, was multi-dimensional.
The wider a goaltender sets his feet, the harder it’s going to be to utilize maximum lower body power to move laterally. When Lawrence and Merzlikins started to work together, the Lugano starter had his feet set so wide that he was almost entirely balanced on the inner edge of his blade; not only was he limiting his opportunity to set his edges effectively, but he was losing some of the explosive power he could have been utilizing to move across his crease and get set on cross-ice passes.
There was also the concern of how it affected the way Merzlikins held his torso. He had almost shrunk into himself, with his chest protector at times just inches from the tops of his pad’s thigh rise. He stands at 6-foot-3, but he was making himself look almost diminutive and easy to exploit.
Over the course of last season, the pair worked first to cement the concept of a narrower stance in Merzlikins’ game, then to make that new foundation second nature.
It’s a difficult transition. It isn’t as massive a fundamental shift as moving glove positioning or changing his butterfly, but getting someone to change the way they stand — and then to get them so used to it that it no longer requires additional thought — is an arduous undertaking nonetheless.
It took, Lawrence theorized, until about January for the changes to really and fully click. But that meant a lights-out spring performance, and it’s meant a goaltender arriving in Lugano this year that looks like a whole new player.
With his feet pulled in substantially, Merzlikins boasts a more formidable posture even on his feet, and it’s carried over to the way he instinctually holds himself well down on his knees to make the stops themselves. He’s more centered and able to get across the crease with ease, controlling his movements and getting set much faster.
Trusting the process
The time it took to get Merzlikins where his game needed to be had nothing to do with the way the young goaltender processes new information.
What did create an all-too-understandable delay, though, was the establishment of a relationship between Elvis and his coach. Lawrence explained that in order to truly get the Columbus prospect where he needed to be, there had to first be a trial period where he helped his student understand what the changes were being made for and why he should trust them.
“A lot of guys are capable of making these kinds of changes to their games,” Lawrence theorized, “but it’s a matter of leaving comforts.”
“A lot of these guys have gotten to this high level of play without whatever you’re teaching them, and there’s a need to get them on board with what you want them to do. In their mind, they sometimes see it as ‘I’ve gotten here the way I am’, and you have to develop that trust in order to really get a guy to buy in on what you’re trying to do.”
Merzlikins had a unique upbringing in the world of pro hockey. While the sport is generally considered an upper class extracurricular, his childhood in Riga wasn’t what you’d expect for a young player at one of the most expensive positions in any sport.
Developing a relationship in order to gain his trust, therefore, was paramount for Lawrence in order to convince his new student that his game could really hit the next level.
Now, of course, there’s an easy level of communication between the two. They pore over video clips, both of Elvis himself and of NHLers with similar body types, stances, and game styles, in order to get the eagle-eye perspective on what Lawrence wants his student to do. They’re able to trade opinions and observations, with Merzlikins himself even catching certain scenarios that hadn’t even been a part of the initial reason for the pulled clip.
That type of relationship isn’t forged overnight, though. In order to take a player’s game and completely strip a part of it down to build up something new, there has to be a level of familiarity; while there was never a level of incomprehension or obstinance from Merzlikins, this was a process that would take time no matter what.
The changes have made a world of difference, though, and the open level of communication between student and teacher has made it even easier to continue making minute adjustments. There’s some depth management being taught, and a look at the way Merzlikins has started to present his body in front of the shooter immediately evokes a stark contrast to what the Blue Jackets initially saw when they made the draft selection.
It’s obviously tough to tell how seamlessly the learned material will transfer over to North America, where there’s a learning curve even between the NHL and the lower levels of the game.
The Blue Jackets need Merzlikins to be ready sooner rather than later, though. And luckily, it’s not just the numbers suggesting that could be the case; there’s an eye test to consider, too, and Merzlikins passes with flying colors.
Written by Cat Silverman/ The Athletic