In my most recent Daily Cup of Joe, I wrote about the possibility of adding the current roster in the form of fomer Cane Eric Staal.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe covers a two different situations with the current roster including the impending goalie situation and Jake Gardiner’s flight across the waiver wire last week.
Petr Mrazek / James Reimer / Alex Nedeljkovic
With Alex Nedeljkovic settling in and playing better than James Reimer right now and Petr Mrazek inching closer to return, the Hurricanes suddenly have the three-headed goalie problem in terms of who gets (how many) starts, who (if anyone) finds their way to the waiver wire (or does not because they do not clear waivers) and what the path forward is.
#1 or #1A
With the Hurricanes winning seemingly regardless of who is in net or even how well they play, there is no incredible rush to get Petr Mrazek back in the mix. Priority one is to err on the side of caution in terms of making sure his thumb is 110 percent healed with no need to push timeline. Even when does return, there is no need to ride Mrazek for a bunch of games. The Hurricanes have an odd luxury of not being at the playoff cut line, and as already noted, they are winning regardless of netminding right now. Further, even if 100 percent healthy and with the team needing the win, it has never in two plus years been Brind’Amour’s goalie management style to really ride a hot hand. Back-to-backs get split with only one exception over two and a half seasons.
But disclaimer about non-rushed schedule and fact that goalie starts will be split regardless, Petr Mrazek should return as the expected #1 with every chance to re-find a rhythm and be the #1A goalie. The sample size is tiny with only three full games, but he was playing lights out. Further, he offers the best combination of experience, ceiling and recent track record.
#1B or #2
The burning questions then are if/how to split the other starts and what, if anything, to do with whoever is deemed the #3 goalie. The Canes have a bit of a conundrum there. On the one hand, James Reimer is exactly the type of proven veteran a team would like to turn to if needed in the playoffs. On the other hand, Alex Nedeljkovic is playing better right now, figures to be the second goalie going forward into next season and has a strong track record in big games albeit at lower levels.
An interesting question is if the busy schedule can support starts for three goalies. Starting with the last week of March, the Hurricanes play four games, then three, three, four and four in the final five weeks of the regular season. If the team keeps winning and all three goalies are decent or better, might the Hurricanes use all three goalies in the four-game weeks? Using three goalies is obviously not the norm, but then nothing is the norm with the 2020-21 NHL schedule.
I think using three goalies is possible because I think the Hurricanes could keep all three goalies on the roster and not send one back to the taxi squad. The reason is that to go to the taxi squad either Nedeljkovic or Reimer would have to clear waivers. The Canes did (against my bet) manage to get Nedeljkovic through waivers to the taxi squad to start the season, and could try that again. But with teams out of the playoff mix now and with Nedeljkovic playing well, is the risk of losing him higher now? I was wrong the first time but will double down on my first bet betting that this time around. More significantly, my hunch is that the Canes brain trust would agree and be less willing to risk losing him and therefore will not risk him to waivers a second time. The alternative is to put James Reimer on waivers hoping to get him to the taxi squad. He figures to depart via free agency this summer anyway, and as noted above Nedeljkovic has been the better of the two recently anyway. So the thinking here is that it would only be risking a current #3 goalie who figures to leave after the season anyway. The Canes would also net some salary cap relief ($3.4 million salary) if he was claimed which would be a positive. But the flip side is that the Hurricanes might be better off keeping veteran goalie depth/options hopefully fo for a long playoff run. Reimer played well in the playoffs last summer. Further, with his odd contract though there is salary cap savings to be had, his actual out of pocket salary for the rest of the season is less than $300,000. Reimer would not be a sure thing to be claimed off waivers, but his minimalistic out of pocket salary could garner interest. I could see a non-contender claiming him with the possibility of retaining half his salary (again, it’s mostly just salary cap, not real dollars) in trading him to a playoff team that gets hit by a goalie injury or just wants a veteran backup or even #3 goalie.
So again I am doubling down on a wrong bet at the start of the season, but I think the Canes might just keep all three goalies on the NHL roster. With the ability to shuffle a few players like Jake Bean, Steven Lorentz and Morgan Geekie on and off the taxi squad without having them ever physically leave the team, teams do not have as much need to fill the three extra roster spots with players needed in case of injuries.
Netting it out
No rush to jump into it until he is 110 percent ready, but I give Petr Mrazek every chance to resume his play as a solid #1 or #1A.
Though it is messy, I would keep all three goalies in the mix in terms of starts. The busy schedule makes that more doable than would be possible in a normal season.
I would not risk Nedeljkovic on waivers because he is playing well and is ideally part of the plan for 2021-22 and beyond as a salary cap-friendly backup. I would not risk Reimer on waivers only because the extra cost to keep the veteran depth is small.
Last week, the Hurricanes placed Jake Gardiner on waivers. He cleared waivers which shows the importance of salary relative to role in today’s NHL. Yes, he seems to have a recurring back injury which factored in, but more significantly all of the other 30 teams in the NHL passed on adding Jake Gardiner for nothing in trade cost. Yes, he is playing better in 2020-21, but he is still a #5 defenseman (even if a good one), and no one wants to spend $4 million per year on even a good #5 defenseman.
Be it before the season started or along the way, I am sure Don Waddell has at least mentioned Gardiner’s name to see if anyone was interested, so especially with the back injury flaring up, he likely knew with pretty good certainty that Gardiner would clear waivers. And as I said on Twitter when he went on waivers, the Hurricanes would have been perfectly happy letting Gardiner go for nothing. To reiterate, he has been playing well in 2020-21 in what has been a bounce back year for him. But especially in the salary cap world that has to fit Andrei Svechnikov’s new salary for 2021-22 and possibly also re-signing Dougie Hamilton, if you can get rid of a $4 million #5 defenseman, you just do. That is true regardless but even more so with the rise of Jake Bean who can check pretty much the same set of boxes as Gardiner as an offensive #5 and power play quarterback.
Knowing that Gardiner was unlikely to be claimed, the smaller win for the Hurricanes was burying $1.075 million of his salary and saving the cap hit especially if I am correct that the team might carry three goalies on the NHL roster for the foreseeable future.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How would you manage the Hurricanes goalie situation when Petr Mrazek returns in terms of pecking order, allocating starts and possibly risking the waiver wire to get a goalie (and which one) to the taxi squad?
2) Were you surprised to see all 30 teams pass on claiming Jake Gardiner? If he can get healthy again and continue what has been a good season, albeit in a bottom pairing role, do you think the Hurricanes could be able to include him in a bigger deal this summer to clear salary cap for other priorities?