Right now, the Carolina Hurricanes are blazing what feels like a new frontier, one in which they have a clear #1 goalie who is playing well.
The unpredictability of the position
The situation illustrates the unpredictability of the position. As I said on Twitter after Tuesday’s win that saw Curtis McElhinney stand on his head, play goalie while juggling three flaming hockey sticks and stop any and all shots simply with Jedi mind tricks…
He was not even on the list of possible options in June, July, August, September or even the first of October, but the Hurricanes suddenly have a starting goalie in Curtis McElhinney. #TakeWarning
— Canes and Coffee (@CanesandCoffee) November 28, 2018
And league-wide, it is no different.
Top 10 #NHL goalies: Save percentage (10+ GP)
Rinne NSH .942
Halak BOS .936
Andersen TOR .932
Rittich CGY .930
DeSmith PIT .927
Vasilevskiy TB .927
Gibson ANA .926
Varlamov COL .926
Greiss NYI .925
Bishop DAL .923
Campbell LA .923 pic.twitter.com/d0dJynlAIs
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) November 27, 2018
Four of the top ten goalies entering play on Tuesday were not starters when the season began. Who had Greiss, Campbell, DeSmith and Rittich among the league’s best in their preseason predictions? In addition, McElhinney is now at .930, so that adds another.
On McElhinney’s current run and chances of it continuing
McElhinney entered the season expected to be a backup, but that is not because of his level of play in recent years. He had a stellar .934 Save Percentage and 2.15 Goals Against Average in 2017-18 with the Maple Leafs and a solid .917 Save Percentage in 2016-17 split between the Maple Leafs and Blue Jackets.
So it is important to note that McElhinney did not enter the 2018-19 as a run of the mill backup with backup-ish results over the past few years. Sure, the sample size was fairly small in a backup role, but McElhinney had been playing well for some time.
The positive here is that since he has been playing at a high level for awhile now, it is not inconceivable that he just keeps doing it.
The big questions: How many games are possible? And what is the best way to maximize?
There is always the question of whether a player who is playing well can keep it up, but as I have touched on in other articles, the bigger question for McElhinney could be what he can handle for workload. He is 35 years old only ever played in a backup role in teh NHL. As such, a normal season for him is 20ish games. The 15 games that he started in 2017-18 are the most he has started since the 2014-15 season. If McElhinney continues playing well, he will likely reach that total before Christmas.
The situation must be monitored and addressed by Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour, Goalie Coach Mike Bales and Curtis McElhinney himself. Brind’Amour will need to avoid greediness in focusing too much on the next individual game. The result of that error would very likely see McElhinney overused and burned out by the midway point of the season. Some combination of Mike Bales, strength and conditioning coach Bill Burniston and McElhinney himself must figure out how to keep him fresh with the heavier workload. Should he practice less and take some maintenance days to stay fresh with a heavier workload? What is the right training regimen to stay at a peak performance level? Can Mike Bales sense when McElhinney needs a break to avoid physical and/or mental fatigue?
Curtis McElhinney is the #1 right now
Recently, I suggested that the team should consider parting ways with McElhinney. My reasoning was that he seems unlikely to be able to play in a starter’s role for an extended period of time. But crystal ball aside, McElhinney right now is easily the goalie that one would want in the net if the season depended on one game. As such, he is the starter until he falters and/or someone else plays better. He has been the best goalie, and the team seems to play better in front of him. As such, it is time to abandon any efforts to boost Petr Mrazek or Scott Darling into the #1 slot, and instead just go with the hot hand as long as possible.
What happens with Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek?
With McElhinney currently in the #1 slot, many are anxious to somehow eliminate a goalie to be back down to a normal two. But I am not sure it makes sense to rush into this for a couple reasons. First, because of the volume of game limitations detailed above, I would not be inclined to just assume McElhinney will be good for the long run of 82 games. Second, there really is no gain to be had from jettisoning Scott Darling and/or Petr Mrazek right now.
With two more years remaining on his contract at $4.1 million, I would be shocked if anyone claimed Darling if he was put on waivers to be acquired for nothing. The team could still send him to the AHL and be on the hook for his full salary. But with prospects Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth already sharing ice time in Charlotte, adding Darling would just complicate things. The team can try to trade him for a similar reclamation project, but more likely the exit comes in the form of a buyout next summer if Darling does not find a higher gear.
With a modest $1.5 million salary and no commitment beyond the 2018-19 season, Mrazek could be be marketable to a team in need of a backup. But the return on such a deal will be minimal. More significantly, I think the team would like to see a few more starts to see if perhaps Mrazek can round into form as a solid #2.
Regardless, especially with McElhinney’s limited starts in recent years, the Hurricanes must also have a #2 who can play a decent number of games. So at least for now, Mrazek and Darling are in a battle for a #2 role which is important with Mrazek likely getting the next chance to win that job.
So in short, I do not think the Hurricanes will be in any hurry to do anything with Darling or Mrazek. I doubt either has much value on the trade market right now with both being reclamation projects of sorts. In addition, sending one of them to the AHL long-term would hinder the development or two prospects. Finally, the team still needs a #2, so both Darling and Mrazek remain candidates for that role.
An interesting aside on the three-goalie situation
Three goalies do not work well for practice reps or seeing regular game action, but if that model holds it could actually have an interesting benefit. A significant part of ‘goalie fatigue’ is the mental grind of being under pressure night in and night out. With three goalies, it is possible to give McElhinney the night off completely when he is not starting. This is what the team did on Saturday. Physically it is no different, but in dressing as a backup, a goalie must mentally prepare to play all day and be focused during the game while on the bench in case he is called into action. By being a healthy scratch instead, the goalie more truly gets the night off. In considering the possibility of McElhinney going from 15 starts to two or three times that such a break mentally in days off could be significant.
Looking farther into the future
With a 35-year old career backup suddenly in the starter’s role and two other starter candidates mostly flailing right now, the longer-term future of Hurricanes in net is murky. Unless he turns things around, I think the Hurricanes will bite the bullet and buy out Darling this summer. (I voted to do that last summer despite the negative of the buyout cost.) Mrazek is a free agent, so the team would just choose not to re-sign him. McElhinney could be re-signed, but I would also expect the team to add another goalie.
Summing it up
Curtis McElhinney is very clearly the #1 right now. The bias/effort to try to force Darling into that role is over and only resumes if McElhinney falters.
But Brind’Amour needs to be careful that he does not run McElhinney into the ground. Hence, there is still a pressing need for a capable #2.
I would not jump to the conclusion that the current situation will hold for the rest of the season. Much can change over another 60ish games which is part of the reason for my next comment.
Short-term, I do not think there is any rush to jettison Darling or Mrazek. One (and it is not clear which) needs to fill the #2 role, and neither would garner much value trade-wise at their current low points.
Longer-term, I think it will take a significant change of course for either Darling or Mrazek to be with the team next year.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Can Curtis McElhinney be a great Cinderella story who continues as the starter through 82 games and into the post-season? Or is he destined to hit a wall and fade at some point with the increased workload?
2) Do you see either or both of Scott Darling or Petr Mrazek finding a rhythm at some point and being either a capable #2 or possibly even a #1 at some point during the 2018-19 season?
3) What other thoughts do you have on the current Canes goalie situation?