The the abrupt end to the 2018-19 season last Thursday, and locker room clean out day on Monday, the Carolina Hurricanes have officially ventured into the off-season.
I started down the road of writing a higher-level article detailing the big decisions for the Hurricanes this off-season (that will follow soon too) but instead am going to do a deeper dive on the goalie situation for next year.
The only goalie that the Hurricanes have signed for the 2019-20 season is Scott Darling who ironically is the one goalie all but certain not to return. Darling will most certainly be bought out to end that struggle of a relationship. The other certainty is that Alex Nedeljkovic will be re-signed and with the organization but it unclear where he will play next season. Finally, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come July 1. Mrazek is likely to command a significant raise over the $1.5 million that he earned for the 2018-19 season. McElhinney should be in demand as a backup and also should net a raise but more as a higher-end backup.
The best bet is that the Hurricanes re-sign Mrazek and give Nedeljkovic his first extended opportunity at the NHL as a backup initially. But that depends on contract negotiations with Mrazek. Even coupled with a Darling buyout, that keeps the salary commitment to the goalie position reasonable. Adding to the range of possibilities, there are a decent number of goalies heading into free agency this summer.
A burning question to start
Is it possible that the biggest change in terms of goaltending this season was not actually the goalies but rather the fact that the Hurricanes team defense was just so much better? While I do think that McElhinney’s play early and Mrazek’s play late were both truly the goalie excelling, I also think that the team being more steady defensively was a key component too. If one buys the team defense explanation, then risk of starting anew in net seems less significant.
Goalie start math
Most seem to think that giving Nedeljkovic NHL ice time eliminates the possibility of re-signing McElhinney. But could the team utilize three goalies at the NHL level? After the awkwardness of the three goalies early in the 2018-19 season, the knee jerk reaction is to say no way. But with Nedeljkovic waiver-exempt for the 2019-20 season, let’s try some interesting math.
–If he returns, Petr Mrazek would figure to be the starter with at least a slight edge in a 1A/1B scenario. In that role, one could argue that 50 games is a good number to stay fresh and be ready for playoff hockey.
—Curtis McElhinney, who will turn 36 on Thursday, played 33 games in 2018-19, but that is a recent high water mark for him. And he was at his best with nicely-spaced starts. He might be able to do more which is a positive, but something like 20 games might be perfect for him.
–That would still leave 12 NHL starts for Alex Nedeljkovic. If he seems up to the task, I think the team would want to get him more action. But an injury or two could quickly boost that number. And if Nedeljkovic proves to be ready to go, the team could easily adjust his start total upward.
How would this work?
Extra forwards and defensemen work fine, but as demonstrated by the Hurricanes run of it last year, carrying three goalies at the NHL level does not really work. There are only two nets for practice which makes for odd preparation.
But critical to such an unorthodox split of starts is the fact that Alex Nedeljkovic will still be waiver-exempt for the 2019-20 season. Nedeljkovic could shuttle back and forth as needed to maximize his development. Nedeljkovic could primarily utilize Charlotte as home base again and get a good number of starts there. Then he could be recalled with the intent of playing not backing up for a few games here or there. So when the Hurricanes hit one of those stretches of five games in eight nights, Nedeljkovic could be recalled with the intent of starting two of those games in a short span of time before returning to Charlotte. If either McElhinney or Mrazek were injured, Nedeljkovic would be recalled and importantly be given the net instead of the bench for a decent number of those games. With even a short-term injury, it seems like the path to 15-18 starts for Nedeljkovic could actually fit within bringing both 2018-19 goalies back.
Why assume the complexity over just handing the backup job over the Nedeljkovic?
Because the Hurricanes made the playoffs and advanced, I think it is possible to get too much of a sense of security in terms of making the playoffs again next season. The Hurricanes only clinched a playoff spot in the last week of the season which means the turn of even a few games could see the Hurricanes on the outside looking in.
Also worth noting is exactly how the season unfolded in net. Mrazek was not that good in a starter’s role out of the gate. Instead, waiver claim turned hero McElhinney was the steadying force that the Hurricanes desperately needed early in the season. Then down the stretch in March it was Mrazek’s turn to lead and dazzle. Could it be that Mrazek starts slow again in 2019-20 and that the team needs additional help?
I also think it is possible to consider Nedeljkovic to be much more of a sure thing than he is. No doubt, Nedeljkovic had a strong 2018-19 season that warrants a chance at the NHL level. He could well be ready to seize the NHL job and never look back. But that is far from a forgone conclusion. Nedeljkovic struggled mightily making the jump to the AHL. Could he face similar growing pains making the move to the NHL?
The perfect storm in a bad way would be if Mrazek started slow again and then if Nedeljkovic is not ready yet.
How does it end?
Most likely, the situation ends with Darling being bought out, McElhinney departing for free agency, Mrazek being re-signed for 2-4 years and Nedeljkovic moving into the NHL backup role until he can seize the job from Mrazek. That approach has some risk to it, but the only way to learn if Nedeljkovic is the goalie of the future for the Hurricanes is to give him a chance to become that.
What say you Canes fans?
1) To what degree do you think the team’s improved goaltending in 2018-19 was the result of the goalies simply being better? To what degree do you think it was the improved and deep blue line and team defense?
2) Do you think a three-way goalie situation with Nedeljkovic mostly in Charlotte but arriving to take some turns in NHL game action?
3) If you were the general manager, what would you do with the goalie position this summer?