Today’s Daily Cup of Joe finishes off a series working through the Hurricanes players who will become unrestricted free agents this off-season. If you missed the previous articles, you can find links below.
Today’s edition finishes off the series with interesting decisions to be made for the goaltending position.
No doubt Alex Nedeljkovic played his way into one of the two slots on the 2021-22 roster. His 15-5-3 mark with a stellar 1.90 goals against average and .932 save percentage put Nedeljkovic on a path to become the team’s #1 for years to come.
But filling the other goalie slot is still significant for two reasons. First, it has become the norm for most teams to have two capable netminders with a games split closer to 60/40 than 75/25. Second, for as good as Nedeljkovic was in 2020-21, he is only 27 starts into his NHL career and still with some potential for bumps in the road.
So it is possible to both be optimistic that Nedeljkovic continues on his current path but at the same time believe that the team’s decision on its second netminder is an important one and not one for which it makes sense to go low budget without concern for quality.
Mrazek’s situation is a curious one. He arrived as a bit of a bounce back/reclamation project on an inexpensive, ‘prove it’ contract before the 2018-19 season. And prove it he did. After some ups and downs early in the season, Mrazek found a rhythm near the midway point of the season and played an integral part in the Canes’ surge up the standings in the second half of the year to earn a long-awaited playoff spot after a decade-long drought. In addition to his contribution during the games, he did a heckuva job embedding himself in the memories of that fun season with his head long dive toward the pile of celebrating teammates, his interview on the bench after the playoff-clinching win and other photogenic fits of genuine enthusiasm. He 2019-20 season was maybe not quite as good as the previous one, but he was good enough to post a similar win total (21 wins versus 23 in the same 40 games) for the 2019-20 campaign. Then that is when it gets weird. Mrazek started the 2020-21 season with two shutouts in the first three games allowing only three total goals in the three starts. But then he proceeded to miss the next two months of season with an injury. Upon his return, he picked up right where he left off with a shutout and only five goals against in five starts in April. But then Mrazek was sidelined again for a couple weeks before trying to play his way back up to game speed for the second time. His three regular season starts at the end were a mixed bag. I thought he looked shaky/rusty in his return despite battling through it and picking up a 6-3 win. His second start looked like a return to form. Mrazek lost 2-1 in overtime, but on a night when the team in front of him was not very good, he was stellar in getting the game to overtime. Then maybe as a foreboding of things to come, Mrazek was in net for the odd season finale that saw the Hurricanes ice something closer to an AHL roster with it showing. Mrazek was tagged or all five goals in the 5-0 loss that left people wondering what, if anything, to take away from the mostly meaningless game. Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour went with the hot hand in Alex Nedeljkovic for the playoffs. Mrazek did step into the fire to pick up a big win in game 3 against Tampa Bay to seemingly chart a course back into the series after losing the first two games. But when Mrazek had no answer for a second period Lightning barrage in game 4 with the game going quickly from a 4-2 Hurricanes lead midway through the second period to a 5-4 deficit to end the period ten minutes later, he played a central role in the beginning of the end of the Hurricanes’ 2021 Stanley Cup dreams.
The rise of Alex Nedeljkovic while Mrazek was injured combined with the sour ending raises the question of if either the team or Mrazek will decide that all good things must come to an end and go in a different direction.
Assuming his salary is comparable to last year which could be the case depending on how the interesting game goes for the goalie musical chairs this summer, Mrazek actually fits the bill pretty well for what the Hurricanes need. The team ideally needs a capable 1A/1B in a middle type price range that is ideally a bit less than $3 million but maybe stretches a bit if needed. The fact that Mrazek is a known quantity and has been part of the building process is also a positive. The questions are twofold. First from Mrazek’s side, can he/does he want to try to leverage a pretty good three years in Raleigh to try to land a more certain starting role and a contract with a bit more term? Then from the Hurricanes’ side, how much is the team willing to go all in on Nedeljkovic and try to cut a bit of salary in the other goalie slot? Or could the team surprise and go a different direction altogether trying to upgrade in net?
Potentially lost in looking forward is how good James Reimer worked out for the Hurricanes. He was obtained really as a dollar swap to get out of buying out Scott Darling with a modest cost savings. With the need for a backup goalie, it then made sense to at least let Reimer start the year in that role and riding through at least the first year remaining on his contract. I said when he was acquired that if he was something close to adequate as a backup and could play his way up to tradeable after that first year, it would be a huge win. He did exactly that. Mrazek was more so the #1 when the real started for the playoff push. His 14-6-2 record in 2019-20 was a key part of the Hurricanes returning to the playoffs. He struggled at times in 2020-21 with the bizarre run during which it did not seem to matter how well he played – the team just won anyway. He was clearly #3 on the depth chart when the regular season end and figures to be the odd man out this summer.
The one wild card that could change things for Reimer is the expansion draft. As of right now, the Hurricanes have only Alex Nedeljkovic as a goalie to be exposed. As such, the team will need to have another goalie under contract to avoid exposing Nedeljkovic. If the Hurricanes decide not to or are unable to come to terms with Mrazek, one would figure the team to add a goalie to shield Nedeljkovic. If Reimer is willing to take dollars and a one-way deal over choice of destination this off-season, perhaps there is a deal to be had to help both sides. But if that does occur, I would still figure that to slot Reimer as the team’s #3 with a #1B or #2 still to be added before the season starts.
The summer figures to be an interesting one with a lot of options in the game of goalie musical chairs. Current or recent starters who are current scheduled to be available as unrestricted free agents include Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Phillip Grubauer, Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton, Jaroslav Halak and possibly even veterans Pekka Rinne and Tuuka Rask. The challenge for the Hurricanes could be that the list of likeable choices figure to mostly sign for #1 goalie salaries that are probably above what the Hurricanes want to invest in the second slot for the position.
Where do I land?
A couple of the recent starter options are interesting. I have always at least conceptually liked the idea of adding a goalie who looked ‘meh’ in front of a defense that was less than ‘meh’. In that regard, Andersen could be an interesting gamble betting that Toronto made him look worse than he is. But if he wants to enter without competition for a #1 role and be paid accordingly, that does not fit the Hurricanes’ situation or budget. Same would also be true for the better options available on the open market.
I do not like betting too big on Nedeljkovic mostly just because I do not like betting big on any one goalie. I am on record as believing the position is some of combination of voodoo, black magic and dice roles that cannot be predicted year to year. No one would admit it now, but significantly more than half were very positive on Scott Darling at one time. As such, I prefer to find a middle ground for a second goalie not in the $4.5 million or more true starter range but rather somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million ideally on a short-term contract of one of two years that enables the team to reassess after Nedeljkovic’s second year.
With that term, price range and quality level being a difficult one, I would be offer Mrazek $3.5 million for one year (frees up money if Necas has a break out year and becomes the next difficult contract to fit into the budget next summer) possibly stretching to two years but at a slightly lower price. If that deal does not work, I would make some kind of deal to shield Nedeljkovic from the expansion draft and then wait out the goalie market hoping to get a discount on a higher-end goalie who loses the game of musical chairs and sees the Canes as a good landing place or possibly a trade from the domino effect of whatever else happens with goalies this off-season.
What say you Canes fans?
1) With Alex Nedeljkovic’s strong 2020-21 season, how much budget/urgency would you put toward the second goalie slot?
2) What are your thoughts on Petr Mrazek on a deal similar to his previous one ($3 million-ish per year for one or two years)?
3) More generally, if you were Don Waddell what would you be trying to do with the second goalie slot?