A brief history of the Carolina Hurricanes goalie position

A significant part of the Hurricanes struggles in recent years has been the team’s inability to get league average or better goaltending. Be it because of the team in front of him or his own play, Cam Ward just could not seem to find his way into the top half of the league in terms of basic goalie stats. The Cam Ward/Eddie Lack duo did not work for two years. And finally a big bet on Scott Darling failed miserably. This past summer, the team entered the off-season hoping for a rebound from Darling and also with one spot to fill after Ward’s departure. Rather than a few higher-end options, the team signed Petr Mrazek to a one-year, ‘prove it’ type deal. But ironically, the Hurricanes goaltending pivoted not based on a Darling rebound or Mrazek surge. Darling started the season injure and Mrazek struggled out of the gate. The Hurricanes goaltending play instead pivoted based on the steady and calming play of waiver wire acquisition Curtis McElhinney who stabilized the position while the team struggled to get its feet under it in the first half of the season. Next, Mrazek’s game rounded into form. Suddenly and just in time, the Hurricanes had not one but two goalies playing well. The Hurricanes second half surge up into the playoffs featured numerous positives, but I think it is fair to say that the team would not have made the playoffs without the improved goalie play.

That positive ending to the 2018-19 season might suggest that the goalie position would be more set heading into off-season. But with both Mrazek and McElhinney scheduled to become free agents on July 1, that is not the case. The Hurricanes are heading into the 2019 NHL Draft weekend with only Alex Nedeljkovic certain to be available to fill the crease at the NHL level.

The latest reports out of Raleigh suggest that both Mrazek and McElhinney are likely to test free agency starting on July which could mean that the Hurricanes start the 2019-20 season with two different goalies than the successful 2018-19 season.

Today’s Daily Cup of Joe shares my thoughts on the current situation with my comments from Twitter this afternoon as the outline.


Deep dive on current state of Carolina Hurricanes goalie situation

With the 2019 NHL Draft and the start of NHL free agency still in front of us, it is way too early to make any kind of judgment on the Carolina Hurricanes goalie situation. Mrazek and McElhinney are both good possibilities coming off generally strong seasons, but there are other options that could work too.


The big question with Mrazek is what role the team sees for him. The Hurricanes must balance a couple different goals. First is to return to the playoffs in 2019-20. That goal suggests having as much proven talent in the position as possible. Second is to try to get Alex Nedeljkovic into the mix to see if he is ready to take the next step and at least be a capable backup or even jump quickly into the starter’s role. Third is sort of a mix of those two signing a goalie who is capable of being the primary guy in net short-term but also maintaining the team’s flexibility to shift to Nedeljkovic if he proves ready at some point.

So per my Tweet, I think the team sees Mrazek as a capable half of a tandem and also wants to have the option to cut ties and shift to Nedeljkovic in a couple years.


So if I am right that the Hurricanes view Mrazek as half of a 1A/1B tandem and prefer short-term to leave a possible opening for Nedeljkovic, that would suggest 2-3 years at a yearly salary salary of $3-4 million. If Mrazek and/or his agent instead think of Mrazek as now being worthy of being a true #1 for an extended period of time, that would suggest 4-5 years and possibly a salary in the $4-5 million range. That is the potential gap right now on the high end.


The ‘we must sign Mrazek’ contingent is enamored with what Mrazek did in the second half of the season and willing to bet on that level of play into the future. But the reality is that Mrazek’s 2018-19 season was a mixed bag. Down the stretch, Mrazek found a higher gear and was every bit of a solid #1 goalie. But he struggled out of the gate and was ‘meh’ other than that in the first half of the season. Remember that it was McElhinney not Mrazek that stepped up when the team desperately needed help from the goaltending. So while Mrazek deserves credit for how he finished the 2018-19 season, committing to him long-term relies on a small 40ish-game sample size. Furthermore, looking at a broader sample size in prior years shows a similar pattern of mixed results for Mrazek. Committing for five years at a #1-ish salary is a risky gamble that has the potential to go very badly.


Balancing Mrazek’s strong finish with his track record that has been up and down has two impacts on my maximum for a next contract for Mrazek. First, I lean toward shorter rather than longer. My ideal contract would be two years, and regardless of salary, I am not sure I would stretch past three seasons. And at 1a/1b money, I land at $3.75 million per year for two years or $3.33 million per year for three years.


And in making sound long-term decisions, I would stick to my guns if I was leading this negotiation.

After a tough first year adjusting to professional play at the AHL level, Alex Nedeljkovic has made good step-wise progress in the past two seasons. His 2017-18 was better, but as much as anything he was boosted by a good team. But in 2018-19 Nedeljkovic seemed to turn the corner and had a phenomenal season. Based on that, the time is now to start getting Nedeljkovic NHL ice time to see if he can successfully transition into an NHL role. But to say that Nedeljkovic needs NHL ice time is not the same as saying that the team should plan to have him in a certain role for the 2019-20 season. As noted in the Tweet above, rather than making an assessment and a bet on a rookie goalie, I think much better is to just give him ice time and let him earn more from there.


The other player in the mix coming out of the 2018-19 season is Curtis McElhinney. I fully believe that if the Canes had not claimed McElhinney off of waivers that it would have dug too deep of a hole in the first half of the season and missed the playoffs. It was McElhinney not Mrazek who stabilized things when the team was struggling early in the season.

McElhinney’s strong play might suggest that he should be brought back, but the need to work Nedeljkovic into the mix complicates things.

Though I like McElhinney as a backup and possibly as a 1B who gets a lighter work load, I do not see him as a good partner for Nedeljkovic. The team needs a partner who can shoulder the majority of the work if Nedeljkovic does not hit the ground running at the NHL level. With Nedeljkovic still able to go back and forth from the AHL without needing to clear waivers, I outlined a scenario that saw the team bring back both goalies and yet still get Nedeljkovic into the mix.  But that could be complicated and there is not a likely outcome.


The biggest question for me right now is to what degree the team’s 2018-19 success in net was a result of the goalies versus the improved veteran blue line. To be honest, I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, I do think that Mrazek and McElhinney played well. The duo stole some games where the defense really was not very good and just generally played well once both goalies started clicking. But on the other hand, I do think the Hurricanes defense was significantly improved. The forechecking system had stretches where they hemmed teams in their own end and without much chance to score. So I think that the credit would be shared nearly equally between the goalies and the team defense.

But the answer to this question is significant. If it is true that the success was driven by the blue line, maybe there is not a huge need to get the best goalie available. Perhaps any decent goalie would be capable in the current situation. That scenario would suggest that the need to get a specific goalie is not justified. But if one leans toward giving Mrazek and McElhinney more of the credit, then letting both depart could be a recipe for a setback in the 2019-20 season.


I will save it for another article, but there are a decent number of other options available via free agency or trade that should be in the game of goalie musical chairs that starts in earnest on July 1 when free agency opens.


What say you Canes fans?


1) To what degree do you credit the Hurricanes success in net to the team’s defense versus the goalies themselves? How would you split 100 percent of the credit between the two?


2) What are your thoughts on re-signing Petr Mrazek? To what degree is he in a different category priority-wise? What are your maximums for term and salary per year?


3) What are your thoughts for where Curtis McElhinney and Alex Nedeljkovic could fit into the equation?


4) For those looking ahead, what options do you see past Mrazek and McElhinney?


Go Canes!



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