Something interesting happened on the way to the 2015-16 season. Things got competitive. People are pushing and being pushed for their jobs. No where is this more evident than with the goaltenders. Of course, there's Cam Ward. Some would say that he regained a good bit of his form last year. Others would say that form isn't particularly impressive. Regardless it makes sense that Cam would be a prime candidate for a training camp battle what with his contract situation and all. Prior to the draft most Caniacs thought that Anton Khudobin would be the one doing the battling. Little did they know that Ron Francis had some pixie dust to sprinkle.
Enter one Eddie Lack, the Swedish jokester, savior of the Canuck's season last year. Lack went 11-6-2 plus an "other" (relieving Markstrom) in the final 20 regular season games. His SV% during that stretch was a shade under .920. Interestingly whenever he came on in relief he never gave up more than 1 goal. As one of the most highly sought after available goaltenders at this Summer's draft, most thought he'd go for a significant package of picks and/or players. Few saw the deal that Francis would craft (2015 3rd round pick and a 2016 7th round pick) as a likely winner for Eddie.
With training camp opening on Thursday, that battle has been joined. The Hurricanes know what they have in Cam and probably hope for a continued rejuvenation. They think they've got a good idea of what Eddie Lack can bring. There has to be some hope that a 1a/1b type of scenario surfaces with both goalies playing well. It enhances both of their values and will help guide the organization through its next contracting steps with one or both net-minders. If Cam has an even more resurgent season, perhaps there's a slim chance that he's considered for an extension. More likely, he enhances his value at the trade deadline. Similarly if Lack continues to perform, he likely gets a 3 or 4 year deal at or near the $4 million per season he's seeking. The real gamble is that if they both bomb, there's nobody really on the horizon that would be ready in time for next season.
Who exactly are those guys on the horizon? Much like the articles on the forwards and the blueliners, what follows is a similar ranking of the goal tenders. The methodology is a bit different. All tenders in the organization not named Ward or Lack are included. The criteria used includes - who actually has a chance to make the big club and perform at a high level (or at least an acceptable one)? Who has a long term future? Who can be a star? And, of course, who has the "it" factor? The rankings are as follows:
Ready to Go Now
1. Drew MacIntyre
Fooled you, right? This is actually a bit of a trick answer. D-Mac is actually the only goalie in the system that could conceivably step up and adequately fill in if both Ward and Lack went down. He's older than Cam Ward and is pretty much the AHL journeyman poster child. He's played in a grand total of 6 NHL games posting an 0-2 record. However, looking deeper into MacIntyre's career there's some comforting news. In those 6 games he gave up a total of 8 goals on 99 shots for an adequate SV% of .912. As an AHLer he's been to the playoffs 8 times. Over his last 5 playoff runs he's posted a record of 34-23, which speaks a bit to performing under pressure. In fact over his last 5 AHL seasons he's posted a SV% of almost .919. Still he's a 32 year old AHL goalie. He'll never be more than an emergency call up. But if he's the guy to get called up, he's not going to kill you. That makes him unique among the Hurricanes' pool of goalie prospects.
In the Pot, Percolating
2. Daniel Altshuller
Rating him here higher than many would, Altshuller has got a lot to hang his hat on. He's a pretty big kid, standing 6'3" and weighing in at 200 lbs. Daniel is very technically sound, quite athletic, likes to and is good at playing the puck. He's also a risk/reward type of player, unafraid of taking chances. Indeed, Altshuller has seen his fair share of success. In his last two years as Oshawa's lead net-minder, he compiled a 67-31-5 record. While with the Generals he improved on his performance statistics each year, culminating with at stellar Memorial Cup playoff performance going 8-3 with a 1.89 GAA and a .931 SV%. Daniel was probably done a disservice by promoting him to Florida as he was relegated to a backup role, getting in only 14 contests. Still, he won 6 of his first 7 starts finishing with a record of 8-3-1. His GAA and SV% were pretty pedestrian however. While he has an opportunity to fight for a role in Charlotte this year, Altshuller would be best served by grabbing the lead dog role with the Everblades, playing the bulk of the games in net for the ECHL club. He'll likely get an emergency call-up or two, maybe even seeing some AHL action. A linear progression of ECHL starter to AHL back-up to AHL starter to, with his size and skill, NHL back up (and potentially even starter) could certainly be in the cards. And he is probably a year or two ahead of ...
3. Alex Nedeljkovic
Is this kid the next big thing in the Hurricanes goalie pipeline? There are many who think so. Alex "Needaspellcheck" Nedeljkovic is very athletic, incredibly focused, and highlight-reel good. Considered by many to be the best goalie prospect in the Hurricanes system, Nedeljkovic has put up some stats helping him to lay claim to that title. Oh, and he was a Plymouth Whaler. Many have heard something of his gaudy stats, bursting onto the scene in the 2013-13 season going 19-2-2 with a 2.28 GAA and a .923 SV%. He followed that up with a good statistical year on a less than great Whaler club. Most impressive of all was his stint as goalie for the U.S. WJC U18 team where he led the team to a gold medal, going 5-1 in the process. He'll be back in net for the newly minted Flint Firebirds (with a January 7 birthday he's pretty much relegated to one more season in Juniors). With his fluid style, incredible lateral movement and vision bordering on intuitive, he has the talent that should evolve into NHL starter quality.
Wait and See
4. Rasmus Tirronen
Seemingly out of the blue Ron Francis signed the Merrimack College goalie last Spring. Who was this guy and why was he signed? First of all he's a big guy at 6'3" and 215 lbs and he plays big. The Finn played 4 years of college hockey but didn't actually get in a game until his sophomore year. He got better each and every year with GAAs of 2.65, 2.55, and 2.30. His SV% improved equally moving from .904 to .908 to .929. Simply put he was a good goalie on a bad team. This was no more evident than during the Hockey East playoffs when he lead his team with a 63 save (tying a school record) overtime win against Northeastern and a sweep of the Huskies. Tirronen and Merrimack were eliminated by their next opponent, Boston University, but Rasmus was credited with 90 saves in those two games. As an older, college-experienced tender, GMRF likely saw maturity as well as skill in this diamond in the rough. His recent performance in the Traverse City tournament confirmed much of Francis's opinions. For 5 out of 6 periods Rasmus was very, very good. Still, there was that 5 goal 3rd period against the Hawks kiddies. The jury likely has a positive verdict, but it hasn't been tendered to the judge just yet. That's why he's not ranked higher.
5. Collin Olson
He truly is the mystery man. Taken in the 6th round of the 2012 draft, there were those in the organization that felt the Canes had gotten a steal. The kid was off to Ohio State to play in a top notch program. He was okay his freshman year but was expected to challenge for a starting job his sophomore season, that was not to be. Starting only two games that year, he basically washed out and he determined that he would be best served to leave the program to play in the USHL where he would get more consistent starting ice time. To his credit he has been very effective for the Sioux City Musketeers these last two seasons with an impressive GAA and SV%. Another goalie with size, the knock on Olson, however, is that he's very mechanical, not particularly athletic, and needs to work on his footwork. He did look like he had both a good glove and excellent reflexes at prospect camp. Heading to Western Michigan University this season, he's got two more years of eligibility and still has time to flourish. This gives the Canes more time as well.
You Don't Know What You Don't Know
6. Callum Booth
As the newest addition to the goalie stable, Booth was once a very highly touted prospect, even with some reports having him going as high as the 2nd round. His 34-18-5 record over two seasons with the Quebec Remparts provides evidence as to why expectations were so high. Indeed it looked as if he was on his way to prove even more in this year's Memorial Cup when the Remparts traded for Zach Furcale essentially replacing Callum as the #1 net-minder on the team. The big goalie pattern continues with Booth who also stands 6'3" and weighs in at about 200 lbs. Known for great instincts and very good reaction time, he does an excellent job of covering the bottom 1/2 of the net. Booth also has great rebound control, something quite rare in young goalies. He could stand to work on his side-to-side movement and gives up the stray "over the shoulder" goal more than he should. Still as a solid puck handler with good technique, he is an excellent longer term project.
Ranking and rating the Carolina goaltending situation is a difficult proposition, especially given all the moving parts. The two ostensible big leaguers each only have a year left on their contracts. That is something that will need to be addressed once one or both show their true colors during the season. Carolina does not want to go into 2016-17 without at least one veteran goalie under contract. That being said, if things work out according to at least one plan, the net-minder situation could work out quite well.
One interesting scenario would be if both Ward and Lack had a good 2015-16 season, especially if they ended up splitting starts something like 48-34 or 50-32. If that is the scenario then it would not be beyond consideration to re-sign both tenders, with Ward likely getting the shorter deal (2 years for Cam, 4 years for Eddie). Of course if things didn't work out contract- or performance-wise, then one or both of these guys would have to be moved come trade deadline time. Filling that hole without endangering our youngsters' development would be a challenge.
A scenario where both Ward and Lack performed well and were re-signed would allow for a solid professional progression for the 3 most likely candidates - Tirronen, Altshuller, and Nedeljkovic. Tirronen backs up D-Mac in Charlotte this year, takes the starter's reins next year, and backs up Eddie Lack in 2017-18. Altshuller starts in Florida this year, backs up in Charlotte next year, and is the starter when Rasmus Tirronen moves up to the NHL. Finally, Nedeljkovic plays his last year of Juniors this year, starts for the Everblades next year, and backs up Altshuller the year after that.
If all of the prospects continue to develop and show promise, then great! If one leap-frogs another then that's certainly not the worst thing that could happen. One or more may become trade asset(s). Or the team simply realizes that it has 5 or 6 years worth of ongoing goal tending development moving through the system at the right pace. If Eddie Lack does take over the starter's job (or even if Cam takes it and runs with it), there is a plan and personnel in place for quality goaltending for the next 4 to 6 to 8 years. You could also end up with a scenario where a veteran goalie asset is available for trade. The youngsters can still remain on track.
It is also equally possible that one or more of these goalie futures don't work out. Yet, with 2 current, capable tenders on the NHL roster and 6 guys coming through the ranks, this is another area that the Canes organization is building strength while also building depth. As was said earlier, too many good goalie prospects is a good problem to have.