Elvis Merzlikins is a legitimate starting goaltender in the NHL. The Latvian netminder split starts with Joonas Korpisalo for the Columbus Blue Jackets the previous two seasons but this season the net was all his.
While the Blue Jackets struggled, the blame can’t be laid at the feet of Merzlikins, whose .907 save percentage was right at league average — not bad for a team that was frequently a defensive nightmare in front of him.
So, it says something that Canucks prospect Arturs Silovs significantly outplayed Merzlikins at the 2022 IIHF World Championship for their home country, Latvia.
Silovs faced 84 shots and stopped 80 of them, for a .952 save percentage that currently ranks third among all goaltenders at the tournament. It was an impressive performance, particularly for a goaltender who saw limited starts this past season — 10 with the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL and 10 with the Trois-Rivières Lions in the ECHL.
Brought in as Merzlikins’ backup, Silovs first saw action against Czechia in relief of Merzlikins after a five-goal first period. Silovs stopped every shot he faced in that game, then followed that up with 29 saves against Austria for his first World Championship win.
Merzlikins was back in net for Latvia’s next game against Great Britain, one they needed to win to have any chance of moving on to the quarterfinals. After Merzlikins gave up 3 goals on 13 shots, Silovs once again took the ice in relief and was perfect. Sure, he only had to face six shots, but all six stops were essential as Latvia came from behind for the 4-3 win.
In Latvia’s final game of the tournament, Silovs got the start over Merzlikins against a Swedish team with some top-end NHL talent and was outstanding, allowing just one goal on 35 shots in a hard-fought 1-0 loss.
The lone goal that got past Silovs came off the stick of William Nylander on the Swedish power play while he was being screened by Rasmus Asplund. There wasn’t much he could do about that one but every other puck fired at the Latvian net was turned aside by Silovs.
That included Silovs’ best save of the game, which came just moments before Nylander’s goal.
Rasmus Dahlin was able to skate into the high slot when Nylander knocked a penalty killer’s stick out of his hand. Silovs was able to knock down with Dahlin’s wrist shot through traffic with his glove but Asplund — the tournament’s leading goalscorer — seemed to have the whole net to shoot at. Nylander could even be seen already celebrating the goal when Silov stretched back his left pad to rob Asplund.
That’s a world class save by Silovs and it’s truly a shame that Sweden scored immediately after.
Silovs got the better of Nylander on another chance in tight after a Latvian turnover, this time getting his blocker on the point-blank shot. Nylander, who has 15 goals and 36 points in 20 World Championship games in his career, had six shots on goal, with Silovs turning away five of them.
I also appreciated Silovs’ alertness on this broken play in transition. When the pass was deflected and went off Max Friberg’s skate, Silovs had to quickly adjust to kick out the puck and deftly knocked the rebound to the boards with his stick before Nils Aman could get to it.
The clear strength of Silovs’ game is his lower half, as he uses his 6’4” frame and exceptional flexibility to completely take away the bottom of the net from opposing shooters. His ability to stretch out in the splits and seal the ice forces opposing shooters to elevate the puck in tight, which isn’t always doable.
Silovs marries that flexibility with some improved technique from when he was drafted, as he’s clearly absorbed the teaching of Ian Clark and Curtis Sanford.
The one weakness that pops out is his rebound control with his glove, as he has a tendency to knock down pucks with his glove instead of catching them. That can prolong possessions and lead to more chances against. If he had caught Dahlin’s initial shot, then his follow-up heroic save would have been unnecessary and Nylander wouldn’t have scored a moment later.
To be fair, Dahlin’s shot was a good one and Silovs was barely able to get the tip of his glove on the puck. Not catching that shot is pretty forgiveable but there were other instances where he wasn’t able to snag the puck cleanly to get a whistle.
A tournament like the World Championships is all about the small sample size. A goaltender — or any other player — can get hot over a short stretch and dominate. Silovs’ excellent performance, particularly against Sweden, doesn’t mean he has a certain NHL future, by any means.
Still, it’s a positive sign for the 21-year-old goaltender, who is expected to battle with Mikey DiPietro for starts with the Abbotsford Canucks next season and could be an injury away from a call up to Vancouver.
Silovs struggled at times with Abbotsford this past season, posting an .888 save percentage, but settled into his game in the ECHL, with a .920 save percentage that was among the league's best.
While Silovs and Latvia won’t move on to the quarterfinals, the two other Canucks representatives will be doing so. Juho Lammikko and Finland finished first in Group B, while Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Sweden were right behind them in second.
Lammikko and Finland will face Slovakia in the quarterfinals, while Ekman-Larsson and Sweden will play Canada, who struggled in the preliminary round and finished behind Switzerland and Germany in Group A.
Ekman-Larsson miss Sweden’s last two games of the preliminary round due to an undisclosed injury but it is hoped that he can return for the quarterfinals. He was spotted in the stands during the game against Latvia signing autographs for kids.