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McElhinney and Mrazek lifting Hurricanes into playoff race, but team’s future in net remains uncertain

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With elite goaltending has come even more uncertainty surrounding the Hurricanes’ future in the crease.

Jamie Kellner

Over the last nine seasons, goaltending has been a big question mark for the Carolina Hurricanes, and while the current goalie tandem is playing a huge role in the team’s rise into real playoff contention, the team’s future in net still appears to be uncertain.

“We’d look at maybe a goalie for down the road,” general manager Don Waddell told NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti last week in reference to what the Hurricanes could look for in the trade market. “I think this year both guys (Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney) have done a good job for us to put us in our position, but they are both unrestricted at the end of the year. So you’ve got to be careful there. I don’t know what either one of their plans are, so we’ve just got to stay in tune with that.”

With Scott Darling’s future with the Hurricanes likely nonexistent, the Hurricanes currently have zero goalies who have started an NHL game this season under contract for the 2019-20 season. Mrazek and McElhinney are both scheduled to hit the open market on July 1 and 22-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic is a pending restricted free agent who appears to be ready to take on the challenge of playing in the NHL for an extended period of time.

Mrazek signed a one-year “show me” deal, and he has shown the Canes a lot. All year, I’ve preached that his basic counting numbers aren’t an accurate representation of how well he has played. In 28 starts this season (the most among all Carolina goalies), he is 13-12-3 with a .902 save percentage and three shutouts (two in his last three starts). While his numbers have improved as of late, the totals still don’t do him justice.

Almost all of his problems have come on the penalty kill. His .798 PK save percentage ranks 44th out of 45 qualifying goalies and the difference between his expected PK save percentage and his real .798 number is -.028, which ranks 34th out of 45. At 5-on-5, the numbers change dramatically. His .924 5-on-5 save percentage ranks 14th out of 44 qualifying goalies. That’s well above average. His .940 5-on-5 medium danger save percentage is the second-best in the NHL.

The Czech goalie has always been a fiery competitor, and we saw that spirit on full display in his 3-0 shutout win over the Dallas Stars on Saturday.

At age 27, Mrazek is going to be playing in this league for a long time, still. Will Carolina still be his home next season, though? Curtis McElhinney has certainly made that question more difficult to answer.

Unlike Mrazek, McElhinney’s days may be numbered due to his age. On opening night in October, the veteran backstop will be 36 years old. That’s a fact that’s tough to ignore. He’s been a lifelong journeyman, but he has a .923 save percentage in 61 appearances over the last three seasons. In his first year in Raleigh, the October waiver claim has been out-of-this-world good. His low-danger save percentage, medium-danger save percentage, total save percentage, and goals saved above average at 5-on-5 all rank in the top-ten among qualifying NHL goalies. That’s a quality of goaltending that the Hurricanes haven’t gotten since 2010-11, when Cam Ward almost singlehandedly dragged the team to the postseason.

As good as McElhinney has been, how much longer can he sustain his borderline elite level of play? His presence in net is unlike that of Mrazek. He’s calm and poised, which are traits that he has, undoubtedly, acquired through experience over the last decade.

The Canes have two goalies that they can, feasibly, win with. Another part of this equation, though, is the fact that neither of them have really been a full-time starter with major success. They have thrived in a tandem situation, both before their time in Carolina and during it.

The easy answer would be to bring both of them back on a one or two-year deal and not mess with what has worked. Of course, Carolina’s goalie situation has never been and, seemingly, never will be easy, though.

Alex Nedeljkovic has had an almost impossibly successful year for the Charlotte Checkers. He is sporting a 24-6-4 record in the AHL with a career-high .909 save percentage. In his lone NHL start, he stopped 24 of 26 shots in a win in Vancouver ahead of the All-Star break.

I’ve never been very high on Nedeljkovic, but the fact of the matter is that he has won at every level and there’s not much reason to think that his eventual jump to the NHL will be any different.

A three-goalie system isn’t sustainable at the NHL level, so that means one of the three goalies outlined has to be the odd-man out, and that’s where the difficult decisions come because none of those goalies have played themselves out of a job.

At some point, the Hurricanes have to figure out what they have in Nedeljkovic. Is he a long-term back-up, a long-term fringe starter, or could he even be this team’s starting goalie of the future?

I don’t know the answer to that, and while a lot of people might claim to know, goaltending is so unpredictable that I don’t think we will truly know until he is given an extended look with the Canes. It’s tough to justify him staying in the AHL beyond this season, factoring in both his level of play and the need for fellow prospect goalie Callum Booth to see real action in the AHL in order to get the development that he needs for his bright-looking future.

And don’t look now, but the free agent market for goalies is also going to be the best that we’ve seen in quite some time. Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, and New York’s Robin Lehner, among others, are all scheduled to be UFA’s. In the trade market, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick has been rumored to be potentially available, and the likes of Tristan Jarry and Eric Comrie are a pair of young goalies with great AHL numbers (like Nedeljkovic) and are currently being blocked by established, young NHL starters.

So, what do the Hurricanes do? It’s a tough question to answer, but unlike the last near-decade, it’s a tough decision with multiple positive outcomes. It’s a good problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

Mrazek and McElhinney? Mrazek and Nedeljkovic? McElhinney and Nedeljkovic? Other? That’s what the Hurricanes’ front office has to figure out between now and the end of the summer. For now, though, the Canes can feel comfortable knowing that their current tandem is good enough to break a nine-year playoff drought.