Put me firmly in the camp that supports the NHL taking a pause with other professional sports leagues. While I completely understand that these stoppages may not directly effect change, they make an important statement and put attention on the need for our country to do more to create a truly equal society.
I touched on goaltending in my most recent article with a general theme that the Hurricanes did not have to do anything in net this off-season.
For today’s Daily Cup of Joe, I will do a deeper dive on the situation from multiple different angles.
The topic is front and center right now with Elliotte Friedman’s regular “31 Thoughts” column saying the Hurricanes were interested in Frederik Andersen (#19).
Narrowly considering the short-term — 2020-21
I think an important starting point is recognizing the ‘gap year’ that the Hurricanes have financially in 2020-21 and the potential that presents to do something interesting but short-term.
There is salary cap available but only for 2020-21
The 2020-21 season sees the Hurricanes with about $9 million of available salary cap space and no likely bank-busting deals to re-sign or replace key players. At forward, the Hurricanes must re-sign Warren Foegele who will net a modest raise over his entry-level contract and also must either re-sign or replace Justin Williams who was playing for entry-level type money too. On defense, the Hurricanes do have Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Sami Vatanen as significant unrestricted free agents, but with a core of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, Brady Skjei, Haydn Fleury and Jake Gardiner in the mix to fill the top 4 slots and even the bottom 2 slots also, I think all three players are likely to receive better offers elsewhere from teams that more desperately need #4/#5 veteran stability. I do think the Canes would consider bringing Edmundson back but will likely be unable to do so just because he will get better offers elsewhere. So if one considers Edmundson, van Riemsdyk and Vatanen gone, the only defenseman to be re-signed is Haydn Fleury. Like Foegele, he will get a modest raise, but as a player who spent the majority of the season in a #5/#6 slot his increase will be modest unless the team wants to go for a longer term. If one goes with a base model of just re-signing Foegele and Fleury from the current group, something like $7 million of the $9 million salary cap would be left needing only to maybe add a depth player or two to fill out the roster.
That gives the Hurricanes some potential budget specifically for 2020-21.
The summer of 2020-21 sees Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton become free agents. Especially if he takes another step forward in 2020-21, Svechnikov will demand a huge raise. Hamilton is $5.75 million on his current contract, so his increase will not be as sizable. Next summer also sees Petr Mrazek and James Reimer become unrestricted free agents and also depth forwards Brock McGinn, Jordan Martinook and Ryan Dzingel. That offers a little bit of flexibility and cost savings but not so to easily clear the way for a $7-9 million contract for Svechnikov.
So while the Hurricanes have a nice chunk of budget that they could use for 2020-21, the team needs to have more salary cap budget available for 2021-22.
The potential to tinker specifically for 2020-21
So the financials are unique in that they offer the potential to spend a bunch of money in net without significantly impacting other things, but the team needs to be more calculator careful/savvy in terms of making commitments for 2021-22 and beyond.
While there are a few big name goalies available this summer led by Braden Holtby and Robin Lehner, players of that caliber are not going to sign a one-year deal even if the salary is high. To play with the gap year budget would likely require adding a pricey goalie via trade. Interestingly, there are are options in that regard. The aforementioned Frederik Andersen is signed only through 2020-21 as is Tuuka Rask. After his bubble departure and with a run of ups and downs with Rask, might the Bruins move on? In division might be harder, but Henrik Lundqvist will be in the final year of his contract earning $8.5 million. With young goalies in tow and the next generation of the Rangers maybe emerging ahead of schedule, is it possible that the Rangers move on a bit before Lundqvist retires? Lundqvist’s deal is bit more friendly cash-wise at only $5.5 million actual salary for a team that can make the big cap hit work.
I would not try to win an aggressive bidding war for a player signed for only one year and on the other side of 30, but if teams make a concerted decision to move on, and it turns out to be a buyers’ market because of the flat salary cap, the possibility of taking a shot for 2020-21 without a commitment beyond that is intriguing.
What about Alex Nedeljkovic?
On the one hand, I think Alex Nedeljkovic has earned at least a look in the NHL by virtue of mastering the AHL level. His ‘it’ factor and track record in big games prior to turning pro is also very interesting. But I have long been skeptical that Nedeljkovic is the next Canes goalie. For a smaller goalie, I just think he is too noisy, a bit in the same way that Mrazek can be, and will have trouble once NHLers start figuring out where the holes can be.
But again, despite being a skeptic, I think ideally the Hurricanes want to give Nedeljkovic a shot. If nothing else, maybe he proves capable of growing into a backup role and by doing that helps with the 2021-22 financials by filling the #2 slot for a $1 million or less.
In an ideal situation, the Hurricanes start stronger and have a bit more margin for error sooner and some ice time opens up from injuries (not wishing for anyone to get hurt obviously but a few extra starts for a third-ish goalie would help). If the Canes struggle early and/or have two healthy goalies ahead of Nedeljkovic it becomes bit trickier for the organization/Rod Brind’Amour to figure out how to manage the situation.
Are Petr Mrazek and James Reimer good enough?
I think they are actually. I would not consider either to truly be top-tier NHL starters, but the question I always ask is if the team won to the level of the skaters’ play. I think in general, the team has received about what it deserved both in the regular season and in the playoffs. In 2018-19, Mrazek’s hot streak late in the season was actually a plus in the win column. And in the playoffs, I think the goalies (McElhinney in this case with Mrazek) held their own in the two series wins and that the Hurricanes were just the lesser team against the Bruins. I think the same was true in 2019-20. The goalies had some ups and downs, but in total I would say they were at least neutral and maybe slightly better during the regular season. And in total in the playoffs, I think Mrazek and Reimer were positives. They played very well in the Rangers series, and I think their play in the Bruins series gets overshadowed a bit more than maybe it should by the single glaring error that each had in games 4 and 5. But if you look at the overall play and numbers from even the Bruins series, that was not the problem or driver of the loss. The Bruins were just better overall even if by a fairly modest margin.
So though ideally the Hurricanes would like to upgrade in net at some point, that can be incredibly hard to do at some point. The options to try to do so tend to be very risky. There are occasionally reclamation projects with upside available (Mrazek fit that category when he arrived) sometimes. And then there are occasionally premiere goalies available in free agency. But ironically, the premiere goalies usually come with more risk than the reclamation projects because they are often at or over 30 years old but still requiring a pricey contract for 5-7 years. Last year, that goalie was Sergey Bobrovsky, who had a ‘meh’ or worse first year in Florida. This year’s version is Braden Holtby who is 30 years old and will likely want a 5-7 year deal at maximum dollars.
One camp might say that you have to gamble for a home run here at some point. I would actually take the other side that specifically with the goalie position, avoiding high risk/high reward contracts and maybe going with a tandem is the better path forward.
So looking only at 2020-21, what do you do?
Specifically for 2020-21, I would kick tires on the availability of pricey veterans like Tuuka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist and Frederik Andersen if any are available, but as I said above, I would not enter any bidding wars. I would more be the opportunistic buyer of (discounted) last resort if any of these teams decide they want to move on and are committed to such a move.
I would make it a priority to get Alex Nedeljkovic a sizable chunk of NHL ice time. Even if he does not project to being an NHL #1, gaining comfort and confidence in his ability to be a capable #2 would be significant in terms of making the salary math work for 2021-22, especially if the Hurricanes try to upgrade at #1 when Mrazek and Reimer come of their current contracts.
Finally, I would not at all be against running with Mrazek, Reimer and Nedeljkovic. I get that having three goalies is not ideal and really does not work long-term, but I am not enamored with trading Nedeljkovic without even seeing what he can do at the NHL level, and I am equally not enamored with counting on Nedeljkovic to be a reliable 1B without any NHL run time to verify it. So at least short-term, I think the best path forward is to make three goalies work.
Longer-term — Looking out to 2021-22 and beyond
As noted above, ideally the Hurricanes will upgrade in net at some point timed well with this young roster peaking and in the process open up a Stanley Cup contention window. But also as noted above, adding top-tier #1 goalies is hard to do.
Could Canes be a boost?
One of the things that stands out in the 2020 NHL Playoffs so far is the success of the New York Islanders. With a 3-1 lead over the Flyers, the Isles seem destined to push into the Eastern Conference Finals. On Twitter on Sunday, I called Barry Trotz the greatest free agent addition of the past decade. His system and style of play generate gripes from non-Islanders fans who want more entertainment value, but his system, style of play and ability to get player buy in has the effect of boosting goalies. Who would pick Semyon Varlamov or Thomas Greiss in a draft of 2020 NHL Playoff goalies? ….But yet they look fine or better.
Do the Hurricanes have the potential to similarly boost an average or slightly good goalie to a higher level? I felt more confident about the potential for that with the 2018-19 Hurricanes before Justin Faulk and Calvin de Haan were swapped out for Brady Skjei and Jake Gardiner, but the healthy version of the Canes blue line with Brett Pesce still looks pretty solid. Is it possible that a goalie like Frederik Andersen has a higher gear in a new environment with a better blue line? Or is there another goalie out there who looks ‘meh’ behind a sub-par defense but who has the potential to play at a higher level with better help? What about Matt Murray who could likely be available from the Penguins who need to decide between Murray or Jarry. Murray is still only 26 years old despite having a ton of NHL experience, playoff experience and a Stanley Cup already. The Penguins blue line has been somewhere between below average and downright poor for a few years now. Is it possible that Murray’s slide the past couple years is not his play but rather the team in front of him? If so, timing could be right to trade for him and re-sign him (he is restricted free agent this off-season) at a low water mark.
More than anything, I think finding a goalie who has been a victim of the defense in front of him could be the path toward finding one notch higher in terms of goaltending looking out a year or two.
Placing bets…the options are there
As I said above, I think signing older, higher-end goalies to long-term, pricey free agent deals generally rates poorly in terms of risk/reward trade-off. But if the Hurricanes young roster takes another step forward in 2020-21, just maybe the organization decides that the timing is right to place a bet. Yes, the downside could be significant, but if the upside is truly the chance to win a Stanley Cup or two, maybe you place that bet.
The options are definitely there. Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom and Robin Lehner will be free agents this off-season. Tuuka Rask, Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen are scheduled to be free agents after the 2020-21 season. If the Hurricanes are willing to open the checkbook and take on salary and term risk, the potential to place a big bet is there.
What about the prospect pool?
In terms of goalies in the organization, Nedeljkovic is likely the only near-term hope. It is important to recognize that goalies sometimes come completely out of nowhere. Jordan Binnington sort of came out of nowhere which happens fairly regularly. So in that regard, Nedeljkovic has a chance.
In the group behind Nedeljkovic, I do not expect either of Callum Booth or Jeremy Helvig will garner next contracts. My best guess is that the next AHL goalie to be in the mix will be one of Eetu Makiniemi who has progressed in Finland or Pyotr Kochetkov who is still in Russia. One of both of those two could be next up for prospect ice time in the AHL. But with the delayed start to the 2020-21 season, that will not likely be until 2021-22 for either unless they are able to make the jump for the latter half of a delayed 2020-21 season.
The other wild card is the upcoming 2020 NHL draft. Highly touted is Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov who projects to be drafted about where the Canes pick in the middle of the first round at #13. With a young NHL roster and no clear long-term answer in net, might the Hurricanes gamble with an early draft pick on a goalie? Askarov is highly-touted enough that he would immediately slot behind Nedeljkovic (without eliminating Makiniemi or Kochetkov from consideration too) in terms of goalie options looking forward.
What would I do?
Pending a thorough assessment/review by the scouting staff and especially the group most capable of assessing goalies, Matt Murray is incredibly intriguing to me. I would assign a small team to review his body of work over the past couple years with an eye for sorting out whether Murray truly took a step down or whether he was just the victim of a porous defense. Tristan Jarry’s 2019-20 success opposite Matt Murray’s struggles would seem to suggest that the issue has been Murray’s play, but I am not sure it is necessarily that simple.
The same exact argument applies to Frederik Anderson, but in terms of looking longer-term he will be 31 years old when the 2020-21 season starts and will be 32 when his next contract starts. Any long-term contract in that scenario is by definition high risk in my book.
More generally, if the scouting staff and goalie experts in the organization like someone like Murray, Andersen on someone else just being down on their luck, I would consider going for it especially if contract term (more so than salary even) is reasonable.
I like the idea of landing Askarov in the draft if he checks out with the European scouting team that has been very good in recent years. The Hurricanes can afford a miss in this draft, and netting a top-tier goalie represents significant potential upside looking out 2-4 years.
Finally, right back where I started, I do not think the team has to do anything in net to have a chance, so if the deals/prices/options are not right, going with a combination of Mrazek, Reimer and Nedeljkovic is workable.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think going with Mrazek, Reimer and/or Nedeljkovic is viable for 2020-21? What about beyond that?
2) If you were going to shop externally for a goalie (trade or free agent) who would you target and why?
3) From the prospect category? What do you make of Nedeljkovic’s chances to rise up and be a #1 or at least a capable #2? If Askarov checks out with the scouts and is available, would you be willing to spend a first-round draft pick on a goalie?