After the kick-off of free agency for the NHL on Wednesday, I covered the team’s decision to sign defenseman Tony DeAngelo. That remains the single biggest signing in the sense that it has the potential to do irreparable damage the the team’s reputation and its hockey community.
Today’s follow up on Wednesday’s flurry of activity is a bit lighter, taking a look at what the Hurricanes did with the goalie position.
The Hurricanes’ goalie maneuvering started with a bang with a surprise trade of Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit for a very modest return of a third-round draft pick and negotiating rights to Jonathan Bernier. Management expressed a preference for going with two veteran netminders in what it called a ‘win now’ mode. I am not 100 percent convinced on Nedeljkovic either after a strong but short 23-game run in 2020-21, but at the same time, I would have given Nedeljkovic a bit more runway. Young, top-tier goalies are such a rarity, that I think better is to at least roll the dice. Worst case, if he struggles in 2021-22, the team could have added help at the trade deadline and moved on next summer. But that was water under the bridge by the time free agency opened.
In general, I think the team’s strategy is to have two capable veteran goalies at moderate 1A/1B salaries.
Petr Mrazek and Jonathan Bernier could have been options, and the team said that it was negotiating with both, but I think the team viewed them as just two options on a list that maybe had up to 5-6 possibilities in an off-season that had a sizable list of possible options.
The end result was the Hurricanes signing veteran Frederik Andersen from the Maple Leafs and another veteran in Antti Raanta from the Coyotes.
Why Frederik Andersen?
Last week, I had Frederik Andersen on a list of players who might be available from bottom tier teams. He was not included because the Maple Leafs were a lesser team but rather because I think the team is ‘meh’ defensively. Combine that with the pressure and playing under a microscope that is Toronto, and maybe the potential is there for upside with a change of scenery. With the Mrazek going to Toronto for less salary even and Andersen coming to North Carolina, the move works out like a goalie trade. With Mrazek coming off a strong season (though with very limited play because of injuries) and Andersen coming off a 2021-22 campaign in which he struggled and Andersen costing more, the question is why? I think the bet here is that the Hurricanes system and defense will be more favorable and that Andersen will be boosted accordingly. That has proven true recently. In three years under Rod Brind’Amour, the Hurricanes added Mrazek on a down trend as a bit of a reclamation project, then added fringe AHL/NHL goalie Curtis McElhinney, then next another reclamation project in James Reimer and finally a rookie in Alex Nedeljkovic. It would be fair to say that none of those four goalies were sure things upon embarking with the Hurricanes, but all played pretty well. Put another way, the Hurricanes are betting more on their team/system than the specific goalie. Combine that with giving Andersen a fresh start in a less pressure-filled environment, and the Canes are hoping for significant upside. The only thing that seemed odd about the deal was committing $4.5 million in salary to Andersen who is coming off a ‘meh’ season that saw him lose his starting job. That premium price suggests that the team did prioritize him over other options that might have come in cheaper and seemingly also over Mrazek.
Why Antti Raanta?
Of the two goalies added, I like Raanta better because I think his ceiling is higher. He therefore presents the greater potential to be a significant difference-maker. The negative on Raanta and reason he was available for only $2 million is the fact that he has had trouble staying healthy in recent years. At 32 years old, the question is whether that will continue to be an issue, but in a 1A/1B system, it is possible to take some risk. When healthy, Raanta has shown a high ceiling with an Arizona team that has been undermanned in recent years. His save percentage has been north of .920 in three of the past five years, with the two years below .920 being impacted by injuries. He is not coming off a great 2020-21 campaign, but it is reasonable to bet that he will find a higher gear again if he can stay healthy.
Why not Petr Mrazek?
My expectation was that the team would have had a moderate preference for sticking with Mrazek as a known quantity versus a similar 1A/1B category goalie if the costs were similar. Passing on Mrazek at $3.8 million (assuming Canes could have had a similar deal) to sign Andersen for $4.5 million suggests that the team did not in fact prefer Mrazek. My best guess for why that would be is that needing to improve the team wanted to shoot for upside even if it came with a bit more risk. Put another way, the status quo was not good enough, so the team at least has to try to improve.
The wild card – the reconstructed blue line
Even if the Canes are betting on the system/team providing a boost in recent years, the question is whether that is still true for 2021-22 with the changes. Dougie Hamilton had his lapses defensively, but in total he was a net positive defensively partly due to his ability to help drive play into the offensive zone. Minus Hamilton but with a growing collection of players who will try to replace him by committee, we will have to see how the 2021-22 blue line pans out. The team figures to be a bit deeper but with some uncertainty for how to build out a capable top 4.
My two cents
I am fine with moving on from Mrazek and Reimer. Reimer won in 2020-21 but was not great in general. Winning without playing particularly well overall is a risky formula to try to repeat. I would have been fine with bringing back Mrazek for one of the two goalies, but at the same time, taking shots at upside makes sense. I really like Raanta especially at $2 million per year because of his potential upside if he can stay healthy and return to form. Andersen is intriguing. He was not great in 2020-21 and has had some ups and downs in general over the past couple years. But the Maple Leafs have mostly had a patch work blue line and has a forward group that leans offense sometimes at the expense of two-way play. There are no guarantees, but I like the idea of placing a bet that he improves with a change of scenery. I still prefer the idea of going big with someone like John Gibson, but who knows if he is even available.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you think of the decision to part ways with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer?
2) What are you thoughts on Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta?