Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes an in-depth look at the Carolina Hurricanes depth chart.
A critical but tricky position
The goalie position in today’s NHL is easily the trickiest to manage. On the one hand, the position is critical and with only one in net, one would figure that the goalie position would be one to invest significant assets in terms of salary budget and draft choices. But the problem is that the position is so fickle that it is not clear that making big investments often gains anything. Even very good goalies seem to wander off track. And generally speaking selecting goalies high in the draft does not significantly increase the probability of success for a position where many of those players are five or more years away from being NHL-ready.
Quantity over quality approach and its ice time challenges
So a common approach to the goalie position in terms of drafting and development is to regularly draft goalies mostly with mid or late-round picks with the theory that quantity beats quality (as measured by draft level) in terms of finding an occasional winner.
But with quantity the challenge then becomes having enough ice time to evaluate and develop goalie prospects. Teams have at most 3 spots to develop goalies at the professional level, and the current trend in the NHL is to go 3 or even 4 goalies deep with players who could potentially help at the NHL level. That strategy of having NHL-capable depth at the AHL level can steal another spot. The result is less than ideal for ice time for professional level prospects and also an unfortunate need to make early go/no-go decisions on professional level prospects.
This is the reality of the Hurricanes right now. The team added Anton Forsberg I believe intentionally to be a capable #3 at the AHL level with an inexperienced Alex Nedeljkovic intended to be the NHL backup. Then when the team was able to parlay Scott Darling imminent buyout into a James Reimer who could be useful at the NHL level and/or gain enough trade value to be traded and basically eliminate the financial hit on Darling’s contract. Suddenly, the team had an NHL backup and an incentive to try to boost his trade value. They also still had Anton Forsberg and Alex Nedeljkovic both at the AHL level. That basically pushed Callum Booth and Jeremy Helvig to the ECHL level and a situation where neither is likely to get as much ice time as desired.
A draft and develop strategy that considers the limited professional ice time
I think the Hurricanes basic approach to draft a goalie or two each year to stock a quantity of prospects hoping one works out makes sense, but I think the next layer is doing this with a huge bias toward Russian and European goalies first and US college goalies second. The issue with Canadian junior goalies is that they quickly graduate and require a professional slot. Further, they force a financial and roster commitment early.
Whereas teams usually only have two years to make a decision on a Canadian junior draftee (like Helvig and Booth) and then have to sign them and allocate professional ice time to them, the Hurricanes own Russian prospect Pyotr Kochetkov indefinitely. This means that he could develop in the KHL and be a late bloomer, and the Hurricanes would still own his rights many years down the road. Next best would be drafting US College players or most other Europeans who come with four years of rights.
If the scouting staff loves, loves, loves a goalie from Canadian juniors, I would still draft such a player. But at the same time, I would invest extra resources scouting KHL/Russian players and would have a significant bias toward drafting them. United States college and other European goalies seem to be almost as good with four-year draft rights. But the problem is that pushing too close to the end of the four years risks losing the player to choosing to instead become a free agent.
The Hurricanes depth chart
NHL #1 — Petr Mrazek
The team smartly avoided overextending into a risky contract when it re-signed Petr Mrazek for two years. He will be the team’s starter until either he falters or a next-generation player rises up to take his spot.
NHL #2 — James Reimer and Alex Nedeljkovic
As noted above, I think the team’s preference is to give Nedeljkovic an NHL audition this season, but the team can also benefit from getting Reimer reestablished at the NHL level and possible to trade at least in a package deal. So I view Reimer as a short-timer and Nedeljkovic really as the #2 looking out. Nedeljkovic was the spotlight prospect in the latest edition of Checking In with Brandon Stanley which you can find here.
NHL #3 — Anton Forsberg
As noted above, many teams are starting to basically slot a third NHL goalie at the AHL level. When Forsberg was acquired, I think he was a great fit for this role for the Hurricanes as an inexpensive option with a decent amount of NHL experience. But then the James Reimer trade occurred which I think made for one more NHL-capable goalie than desired. Then when Forsberg won a one-way deal in arbitration, the Canes were also forced to pay him an NHL salary even if he stayed in the AHL.
Prospects without a current path — Callum Booth, Jeremy Helvig, Jack Lafontaine, Eetu Makiniemi
From a recent history of regularly drafting goalies, the Hurricanes have a group of goalies who I believe are on the outside looking in right now. For any of them becoming a going concern requires finding a higher gear and catching the team’s eye.
Jack Lafontaine was unable to carve out starter ice time at the University of Michigan and ultimately left the program. After dropping down to the BCHL, Lafontaine is playing for the University of Minnesota for the 2019-20 season. He attended the Canes prospect camp last summer which suggests that the team is still watching, but I think he needs a big 2019-20 season to boost his stock and wi an NHL contract before his draft rights expire.
Eetu Makiniemi has been playing in Finland since being draft. He has yet to play his way up to the top league in Finland and stick. As such, I would be surprised to see the Hurricanes sign him without a significant uptick in his play.
Callum Booth has been shuttling between the AHL and ECHL levels. His contract is up at the end of the 2018-19 season, and I think there is a good chance that he is playing for his next contract right now. Booth made three stops in 2018-19 trying to get some ice time. His numbers were ‘meh’, but he did finish the season strong by playing well in the ECHL playoffs.
Jeremy Helvig‘s situation is similar to Booth’s except that he still has two years remaining to make an impression before his contract expires. Like Booth he is a Canadian junior draftee and has been shuttled around a bit trying to get ice time. He is playing in Jacksonville in the ECHL to get ice time in 2019-20 and needs to do something to turn heads to become a long-timer for the Hurricanes organization.
I think all four of these players are long shots to still be with the Hurricanes organization out two to three years.
The next wave — Pyotr Kochetkov and Jake Kucharski
Next up in the rolling waves of Canes goalie prospects are a couple of younger prospects who would figure to replace the group above. As a KHL player, the Hurricanes might leave Kochetkov to develop in the KHL. Kucharski is an NCAA player who will eventually need professional ice time.
Pyotr Kochetkov is highly-touted, will definitely get a look at some point and could push Nedeljkovic to become the top prospect in the organization. Like Nedeljkovic, Kochetkov was drafted early in the second round. The big question with Kochetkov is when the team will sign him and bring him to play in the AHL.
Jake Kucharski is another more recent draftee. He is another player whose starting point is on the outside looking in. But unlike the first group he has a much longer timeline, as he begins his college career at Providence College. Kucharski’s size is appealing, and my read on him at prospect camp was that he brings a good amount of agility/mobility which is a great starting point.
Netting it out
When I net it out, Petr Mrazek is the starter for the foreseeable future, and James Reimer is likely a short-timer in his role in the #2 slot. I think the Hurricanes will find a way to audition Alex Nedeljkovic for the backup role.
Anton Forsberg is an interesting case. I think the team wanted him in the slot he is in but did not figure on the one-way contract that he won in arbitration.
The group of prospects behind Nedeljkovic (Jack Lafontaine, Jeremy Helvig, Callum Booth, Eetu Makiniemi) are unlikely to play a long-term role in the Hurricanes organization.
That leaves Pyotr Kochetkov competing with Nedeljkovic to be next in line, and Jake Kucharski as the next wave of depth prospects.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How do you think the long jam below Mrazek with Reimer, Nedeljkovic and Forsberg will eventually sort itself out?
2) What are your thoughts on drafting and developing for a difficult position?
3) Other Canes goalie thoughts?