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Long live the platoon: Mrazek, McElhinney backstop Canes to verge of playoffs

At long last, the Hurricanes have gotten the league-average goaltending the team has needed to surge into playoff contention. And they’ve gotten it from a platoon, with Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney sharing the load.

Jamie Kellner

“If they could just get league average goaltending, they’d be a playoff team.”

For years, that’s been the mantra for the Carolina Hurricanes, as sub-par netminding has frequently kept the team from the postseason during a nine-year drought. With the Canes sitting third in the Metropolitan Division and four points above the playoff cut line with 13 games to go, that drought appears on the verge of ending.

And, lo and behold, getting said league average goaltending has been a major factor in the Canes’ strong season. The duo of Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek have a .914 and .908 save percentage, respectively, this season.The league average is .905. The Canes’ .904 team save percentage is tied for 12th in the league, and rises to .911 (seventh) when one removes Scott Darling’s .884 mark in eight starts.

The Canes, as has become a theme for this team, have gotten this strong goaltending in a bit of an unconventional manner. Rather than one goalie grabbing the reins, it’s been a mostly even platoon. Mrazek has started 33 games, and McElhinney 27.

And that’s just fine with both of them, who have enjoyed the friendly competition for starts, rest and being able to say fresh to give the team a chance when their name is called.

“I think both guys have given the team an opportunity to win with the chances and stuff,” McElhinney said. “It’s a luxury to have. I think it’s nice that you’re not grinding one guy into the ground like is commonplace, I think, throughout the league. So it’s good flexibility to have for the organization right now.”

Both goalies have had the added motivation of a chance to prove themselves in contract years. McElhinney was added via waivers from Toronto days before training camp after an injury to Darling.

Mrazek is an even more interesting case. Despite entering free agency coming off a down season in Detroit and Philadelphia, Mrazek might have landed a two-year deal in free agency, and likely more than the $1.5 million he got from the Canes on a one-year deal. The Czech goalie, however; called Waddell and said he wanted a one-year deal to prove himself.

With 18 wins, a .908 save percentage, 2.53 goals-against average and four shutouts in 33 starts, he’s more than done that.

“That was the reason I came here to prove that I can be the starting goalie one day in this league,” Mrazek said. “I always say I could be better but I can’t complain. Everything I asked for here and from myself, so far, so good.”

Another help to the Canes managing the platoon has been the work of goalie coach Mike Bales, who has worked with the goalies to fit their unique needs and get them each to play a style that maximizes their abilities.

“I think his greatest skill is probably his ability to listen,” McElhinney said. “To allow each goalie to kind of make their own decisions. Petr’s been in the league for a bunch of years now and I’ve been around forever it seems like. So I would say that’s his greatest attribute that I’ve noticed about him so far, his ability to listen to each guy and to come up with drills, video, whatever it is that each guy needs.”

So, is this whole platoon thing becoming a trend? Head coach Rod Brind’Amour isn’t sure about that, but he’s enjoyed being able to rely on two different goalies.

“It kind of depends on who you have,” Brind’Amour said. “I think if you have a Carey Price, you certainly don’t want to be platooning that. But I think coming into this year we weren’t really sure how this goaltending thing was going to shake out. Both guys have been excellent. It’s a real treat to be able to just say ‘Next up, go ahead’ and they go out and perform. Was it a trend? I think that kind of depends on your situation.”

The interesting point will be to see what happens with the Canes’ platoon going forward, particularly if the team does reach the postseason.

Conventional logic is that you don’t platoon goalies in the playoffs, but the Canes have pretty much gone with a “conventional logic be damned” approach to much of this season.

If the team does decide to anoint one starter for the playoffs, I’d go with Mrazek. With a 38-save shutout against the Avalanche Monday, Mrazek has won six straight starts, with two shutouts in that span.

What happens after this season is anyone’s best guess, as Waddell has said he won’t discuss contract extensions with anyone during the remainder to avoid distracting from the playoff push.

Both goalies have expressed a willingness to return, and have earned a second contract in Raleigh. The free agent goalie options also aren’t exactly enticing. Sergei Bobrovsky is going to get a big-money, eight-year deal that is likely outside the Canes’ range (and overpriced for a goalie coming off a down year that hasn’t won a playoff series).

Putting on the GM hat for a minute, I’d offer Mrazek three to four years at $3-4 million per season, and McElhinney a one-year deal at $1-2 million. Both goalies have been instrumental in the Canes’ success this year.

If this duo is indeed the one that gets Carolina over the playoff hump, the team should keep them in the fold for at least another season. As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”