Shortly after the Carolina Hurricanes’ dream post-season run ended, GM Don Waddell met with the media to discuss the season that was and the summer ahead. Among the questions he was asked was the state of the crease moving forward. And that it was one of the pressing questions is no great surprise.
For years, Carolina’s goaltending had been its Achilles heel. A strong possession team featuring promising young pieces and a deep and defensively responsible blueline was almost annually derailed by the performance of its masked men. But that wasn’t the case in 2018-19, as Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney provided a one-two punch that got the job done and propelled the Hurricanes into the playoffs for the first time in a decade. That tandem then guided Carolina through the first round and helped the Hurricanes sweep their way into the conference final before the entire group bowed out in four to the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final.
Given what Mrazek and McElhinney had accomplished, too, it was hardly a stunner that Waddell made clear – and we’re paraphrasing here – that the team would like to see both back in Hurricanes uniforms next season in an ideal world.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in. With the draft slated for Friday and the free agency negotiation window set to open shortly after that, Waddell was asked again about the status of the two goaltenders, both of whom are set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1, and said he didn’t have the same level of hopefulness as before. “We’re trying to sign them, but it doesn’t look like we’re going to get either signed,” Waddell said, according to NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “So, if not, we’ll go to the market and see what’s out there for July 1.”
That’s a blow for the Hurricanes, to be sure, and for more reasons than the sentimentality of bringing back the pair of netminders who helped Carolina snap the league’s longest playoff drought and renew fanfare around an organization that has had far too little of it in recent years. From a statistical perspective, Mrazek and McElhinney were excellent this past season, particularly the former. Among the 56 goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Mrazek finished ninth in the NHL with a .931 save percentage and a goals-saved above average per 60 minutes of .31, tied with Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy for 11th among the same group of keepers. McElhinney wasn’t quite as high-quality, but his .921 SP and .04 GSAA put him mid-pack in both statistics. Both did their jobs and did them well, undoubtedly better than any keeper in recent Hurricanes history.
But that doesn’t also mean Carolina should be bending over backwards to bring one or both back, especially if the term or money is reach anywhere beyond a couple years and upwards of a few million per season.
At this stage in both of their careers, we have a fairly clear-cut picture of what both keepers are, and one that paints last season as an outlier for both. That’s truer for Mrazek than it is McElhinney, too. Over the past three seasons, 53 goaltenders have played upwards of 3,000 minutes at five-a-side, and Mrazek ranks 40th among those keepers with a .921 SP and 35th with a .01 GSAA. Admittedly, McElhinney’s numbers are much, much better – a tied-for-fifth-best .930 SP and sixth-best .25 GSAA – but he has primarily played backup minutes and he recently celebrated his 36th birthday. Any deal with term, not to mention a salary creeping into the multiple-millions, is potentially fraught with peril given he’s on the back-nine of his career.
It’s not as if the Hurricanes are prepared to enter the off-season without a plan in goal, either, and it’s fairly evident that a big part of that plan is Alex Nedeljkovic.
Though the 23-year-old keeper only has two big-league games under his belt, he was stellar in his lone appearance this past season, stopping 24 of 26 shots for a single-game .923 SP and his first career victory, and is fresh off of quite the season down on the farm. He posted 34 wins, a league-best 2.26 GAA and a .916 SP during the regular season, followed that up with a 2.34 GAA and .912 SP in the post-season, guided the Charlotte Checkers to the best regular season record and the Calder Cup and then capped his year off with the Baz Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender. It has long been the hope in Carolina, too, that Nedeljkovic would be the heir to the crease, and it appears that time is coming.
That’s not to say the Hurricanes would be wise to throw their full weight behind Nedeljkovic and ask him to backstop them on a full-time basis next season, but there are several routes Carolina could take to offer him support.
With all due respect, Mrazek and McElhinney were scrap-heap acquisitions last season, the former signed on a one-year flyer and the latter picked up off the waiver wire, and there are a few crease candidates who could be similar targets. Veterans Brian Elliott, Mike Smith, Cam Talbot and Keith Kinkaid might all be willing to fill a similar role. Trade targets could include the likes of James Reimer, Jack Campbell, Garret Sparks and Jonathan Bernier. And, quite frankly, there’s nothing stopping the Hurricanes from trying to swing for the fences on a big-name free agent keeper. Sergei Bobrovsky is probably a no-go, at least not without a wild overpayment, but Carolina would be wise to at least kick the tires. Robin Lehner doesn’t want to leave the New York Islanders, but if the money isn’t there, it might be with the Hurricanes. And Semyon Varlamov, though his play has been inconsistent, presents an interesting option if there’s a short-term deal to be had.
So, sure, Carolina would have been happy to bring Mrazek and McElhinney back, but if both are lost this summer, it doesn’t spell disaster for the Hurricanes. There are options at the ready, one of which is a prospect the franchise has been hopeful about for some time. And if Waddell can at least give Nedeljkovic a veteran option to lean on, there’s no reason Carolina has to miss a beat next season.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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