Today the Hurricanes announced that they had claimed Anton Forsberg off of waivers from the Edmonton Oilers. Forsberg was with the Canes primarily in the AHL in 2019-20 before signing with the Oilers as a free agent this off-season.
In a related move, the Hurricanes placed goalie Alex Nedeljkovic on waivers possibly to be claimed by this time tomorrow effectively making this a trade.
Forsberg is a fairly well-known commodity in these parts having spent the 2019-20 season in the Hurricanes organization primarily at the AHL level. He did play three games for the Hurricanes when Reimer and Mrazek were both injured late in the season.
Forsberg is 28 years old and has a decent amount of NHL experience with 48 games at the NHL level spanning five seasons. His most significant evaluation point for being an NHL regular or late bloomer as a starter came in 2017-18 when he played 35 games for the Blackhawks. In that season, he posted a modest .908 save percentage with a 2.97 save percentage and was not re-signed by the Blackhawks.
Based on his age and track record, I view Forsberg as a high-end #3 goalie. In today’s NHL, teams are increasingly paying a third goalie with NHL experience to have depth and stocking them in the AHL when possible. The challenge is waivers. The Hurricanes obtained Curtis McElhinney in a similar situation. So putting the machinations of NHL waiver/roster/salary cap rules to the side, I like Forsberg as a proven and capable #3 NHL goalie, but importantly I do not think he has much upside from there at 28 years old.
Drafted early in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft and having a strong track record in big games (CHL Playoffs, leading role for US juniors teams for his age group, AHL championship), Nedeljkovic can claim as much value as is possible from his pedigree and experience at lower levels. He did struggle a bit initially in adjusting to the AHL level before mastering it, so at 25 years old he is on the older side for being considered a ‘prospect’. But with a few bumps along the way at the AHL level, I think it is fair to say that he has mastered each lower level. That is by no means a guarantee for NHL success, but I think that is exactly the type of player that one wants to see get an audition.
At a basic level, what happened today was that the Hurricanes claimed a free trial on Anton Forsberg and in conjunction offered up a free trial on Alex Nedeljkovic. If Nedeljkovic is not claimed by tomorrow afternoon, he will be free and clear to return to the AHL level to play and/or to hold a spot on the taxi squad. And the Canes would have four goalies but with the option to send one (Nedeljkovic) to the AHL. Forsberg would need to stay at the NHL level (not on the taxi squad which would require waivers) to be kept by the Hurricanes. If the Hurricanes were to try to send Forsberg across waivers to the AHL, the Oilers would certainly use their right to take him back or another team could similarly claim him for an NHL spot.
My first inclination before Nedeljkovic hit waivers was that maybe the Hurricanes were considering a bigger deal to include Reimer or Mrazek to cut salary with the aim of then still being three deep with Forsberg and Nedeljkovic in tow. But Nedeljkovic hitting waivers suggests that that is not the case.
So what could be going on is that the Hurricanes have reasonable reason/hope to believe that Nedeljkovic will clear waivers in which case, he could reside on the taxi squad without being a salary cap hit or could be sent to the AHL to play on a regular basis. Either way there is salary cap savings and an NHL roster spot freed up. If Nedeljkovic does clear, best bet is that Forsberg, who was just a short-term insurance policy as a #3 goalie while Nedeljkovic was on waivers, is let go.
Assuming the Hurricanes can keep only one of Nedeljkovic or Forsberg (meaning there is no other bigger trade in progress), then it’s like this…
1) If Nedeljkovic clears, the Canes likely lose Forsberg back on waivers and gain two things. First, Nedeljkovic could play regularly at the AHL level. Second, the Canes save $700,000 in salary cap which is significant.
2) If Nedeljkovic is claimed, the Canes at least have a plan B for a #3 with NHL experience in Forsberg. He would need to stay at the NHL level (not be on the taxi squad), so Canes do not really save on salary cap (only $37,500 for his slightly lower salary) but at least still have a #3 goalie available.
The alternative would have been to keep Nedeljkovic at the NHL level and have three goalies at least short-term. That is far from ideal and the would result in having to count Nedeljkovic’s $700,000 salary against the cap. As I said on Twitter, my memory from doing math awhile back was that the Hurricanes could squeeze under the salary cap with Nedeljkovic, Bean and Geekie all at the NHL level making a maximum 23-man roster. The team could also save a few $ here and there by sending Geekie or Bean to the taxi squad when not playing. Since they are waiver exempt, they could be switched between NHL salary (when playing) and AHL salary (on taxi squad when not playing) as needed. (Assuming I am not missing something with those rules.)
That is the route I would have gone instead of risking Nedeljkovic to waivers. Especially with COVID lurking, there is a reasonably good chance that an NHL audition for Nedeljkovic would have materialized naturally during the 2020-21 season.
At the most basic level, I do not like the set of moves. That is based on my expectation that Nedeljkovic will be claimed off of waivers and placing value in being the team that gives him his NHL audition.
By no means is Nedeljkovic a sure thing at the NHL level or a 100 percent claim player on waivers, but I do think it is highly probable that he gets claimed. For the cost of a roster spot and free trial, it makes too much sense for a rebuilding team like Detroit, Ottawa or maybe a few others to take a flyer. Though untested (in enough games) at the NHL level, his resume and pedigree are good. He excelled at pre-professional levels and always played his best when the lights were the brightest in the CHL playoffs and representing the United States in world juniors. And he has succeeded at the AHL level. It took him awhile to reach this point, and he will forever have to drag around the ‘small goalie’ disclaimer, but he has done enough that a team who can take the risk should (and in my opinion will) do so.
Related to that, I place significant value in taking these chances. The Hurricanes have invested six years getting Nedeljkovic to this point. Though they do have other prospects who are on the path behind Nedeljkovic none are certain even to get to where Nedeljkovic is.
Very simply, I think the Canes should want to take the dice roll on Nedeljkovic being one of those goalies who sometimes suddenly and even surprisingly prove to be ready for the NHL.
Because the goalie position is easily the most unpredictable in the sport, I am a huge fan of trials, auditions and dice rolls versus trying to project what unproven goalies will do. Players like Jordan Binnington recently and Cam Ward in Canes history seem to come out of nowhere an perform at a high level. Draft position seems to have modest impact on expected success. And finally, it is not uncommon to see goalies emerge very late. All of that suggests that the odds of Nedeljkovic, or anyone for that matter, becoming a top half of the NHL goalie are slim. But because top-end goalies are so rare and hard to come by, I think Nedeljkovic is exactly the type of player that a team wants to give an audition to especially after six years of development.
Is Nedeljkovic a sure thing or even probable success? No. I am on record for a long time as not being particularly high on him from watching his limited play in NHL action in preseason and limited regular season action. He very much reminds me of Mrazek who is also a bit on the smaller side and therefore has to play an aggressive, challenging style. While it is possible to succeed, it is difficult to succeed with that style at the NHL level.
But whether the odds are 15 percent, 5 percent or maybe 1 percent, I think the Hurricanes owe it to themselves to take dice rolls like this when they are earned versus passing them off.
If not that, then what?
As noted above, the goalie position is the hardest to fill. With even higher draft picks (Nedeljkovic was one) being uncertain to materialize as good NHL goalies and that taking a long time, adding high-end goalies is very difficult.
There are three basic options.
First is to try to buy a higher-end netminder on the open market. That path is fraught with financial peril. Because goalies tend to mature late, this often means committing to six or seven years for a player who is 28-30 years old already at a high price. The Panthers tried this last year signing 30-year Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract for $10 million per year. Through the first year at least, that failed miserably. With Eric Tulsky and his team chiming in with the math/probability angle on these types of deals, the Canes are unlikely to go this route (for good reason).
Another option is to opportunistically scout and utilize pairs of mid-tier goalies. The approach is not sexy, but it is low risk and generally moderate cost and in general better than one might expect for results. This past off-season, I was on record as saying that the Hurricanes current duo was good enough and that the team should consider upgrading but did not have to. I stand by that. Petr Mrazek has met or exceeded hopes/expectations in his role, and the move to use a veteran like McElhinney or Reimer has also been productive and also cost-effective.
The third approach is to play the goalie prospect game and at some point get lucky. As noted above, 18 or even 22-year old goalie prospects are incredibly unpredictable and hard to project. It is not too far off to just consider each goalie prospect a dice roll that takes at least a few years. So the idea is that you spend a reasonable number of mostly mid-round draft picks (buying dice) and then spend a couple years developing them to see which at least have a chance to be good at the NHL (then you roll the dice). A critical part of this strategy is that you have to take the dice rolls. It is incredibly rare that one can project a sure winner.
I view Alex Nedeljkovic as exactly the kind of dice roll that a draft and develop team like the Canes must take. Otherwise, what is the point of regularly drafting goalies. I guess the hope is that one becomes so obviously on an NHL path that the risk goes away, but time and again that is not how it works. With reasonable regularity players like Jordan Binnington get a chance and just excel in a way that does not follow a step-wise projectable pattern.
In general, the Hurricanes have been using a combination of the second (at least short-term) and third approaches, but seemed to have cut the process short today in terms of drafting and developing goalies.
Netting it out
I do not like it because I value the dice roll that could see Alex Nedeljkovic become a difference-maker at an important and difficult to fill position at the NHL level though there is a salary cap win to be had if Nedeljkovic clears waivers and heads to the AHL level.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on possibly losing Alex Nedeljkovic to waivers to get his NHL audition with another team after developing to this point with the Hurricanes?
2) Do you see any other possible angles to today’s interesting transactions?