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Crease contenders: Examining goalie options if Mrazek, McElhinney leave

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Don Waddell told Tom Gulitti of NHL.com that he’s not optimistic about bringing back Petr Mrazek or Curtis McElhinney for next season. What are the team’s options for replacing them?

Jamie Kellner

The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2019 offseason got a lot more interesting Tuesday night. General manager Don Waddell said at exit interviews a few weeks ago that he hoped to bring back both halves of the goalie platoon that led the Hurricanes to their first playoff berth since 2009 in Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney.

However, Waddell told Tom Gulitti of NHL.com Tuesday that he was not optimistic about re-signing either goalie, and it’s now likely both goalies make it to free agency. As Waddell told Gulitti in the same article, it’s possible either or both goalies circle back to the Canes after testing the waters. However, given both netminders’ performances last season, it’s unlikely they wouldn’t find a deal, and Waddell and friends can’t afford to risk waiting and hoping.

It’s possible Waddell’s comments are nothing more than a negotiating tactic. If they aren’t, however; the team will have two new netminders when the 2019-20 season begins. In my initial free agency preview, I projected the team to keep Mrazek and add one new goalie. However, it now looks like that won’t be the case.

While the team has one (very likely) internal option in the form of Alex Nedeljkovic, assuming Scott Darling is bought out, Carolina needs to bring in at least one netminder from outside the organization. The goalie market is somewhat thin this summer (which may be a large contributing factor in Mrazek and McElhinney’s demands), there are some options. Let’s take a look at them.

Internal

Alex Nedeljkovic: We’ll start with the obvious. Waddell told Gulitti in the aforementioned article that, if Mrazek and Mac leave, Nedeljkovic would get a chance to earn one of the two spots. In a scenario where Carolina is looking to replace both of last year’s goalies, the 2014 second rounder would almost certainly be one of the two, so the team would likely only be looking to add one veteran netminder.

Ned’s numbers have improved in all three of his AHL seasons, and he made his first NHL start this year, a win over the Vancouver Canucks. He’s also coming off a strong playoff performance on the Checkers’ run to the Calder Cup Championship, with a .916 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average in 15 games.

Nedeljkovic has had plenty of time to marinate at the lower levels, and it’s time to see what he can do with the big club. He does need a new contract as a restricted free agent, but that negotiation shouldn’t prove too difficult. With the news that Mrazek and Mac are unlikely to return, and the first buyout period ending June 30, I’d expect to see Ned locked in soon.

External

The Canes need to find one veteran goalie through free agency or trade. Given Ned’s inexperience, it needs to be someone at least capable of playing in a platoon role, and, ideally, starting more than half of the games if the rookie needs an adjustment period.

Unlike the past couple offseasons, there isn’t an obvious trade candidate for goalie needy teams, and free agency isn’t flush with great options on paper. But, then again, Mrazek wasn’t a great option on paper and that turned out alright. Here’s some of the options for adding a goalie from outside the organization.

Sergei Bobrovsky: It would be quite the coup for the Canes to sign the top goalie on the market away from a division rival. Calling it extremely unlikely to happen would be an understatement. The perennial Vezina Trophy candidate is going to command top dollar and term, and it makes no sense for the Canes to spend that much on a 30-year-old goalie when they have other commitments coming up. If the team won’t meet Mrazek and McElhinney’s demands, it won’t meet Bob’s. Couple that with reports Bobrovsky wants to play for the Florida Panthers, and this one isn’t happening.

Robin Lehner: Another free agent goalie from a division rival that will be looking for a big raise. A finalist for the Vezina Trophy, Lehner turned a one-year, prove-it deal into what will be a big payday — and another extremely unlikely goalie to wind up in Carolina. As with Bobrovsky, Lehner will command far more than Mrazek and McElhinney, so the Canes are unlikely to be willing to pay that. Still, with less of a track record, he should get a bit less than Bobrovsky, so it’s at least a bit more possible.

Semyon Varlamov: This is the last of the three free agents I can’t really see the Canes getting. Varlamov will be looking at a pay cut from his most recent contract (a $5.9 million cap hit), but is 31 and his numbers took a big dip last season. He also has a checkered past off the ice, and the Canes should be looking elsewhere to fill their need.

Brian Elliott: Elliott could be an interesting option on a one-year deal and as a veteran mentor for Nedeljkovic. The 34-year-old is coming off an injury-plagued season with the Flyers but, if he can stay healthy, could be serviceable. His .907 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average this past season are nothing to write home about, but the Hurricanes are a stronger defensive team than the Flyers.

Elliott is a few seasons removed from his strongest seasons with the St. Louis Blues, but the track record is there. On a short, cheap deal, he could be an ideal stopgap while Nedeljkovic eases into an NHL workload.

Cam Talbot: If the Canes are going to give another one-year, prove-it deal to a bounce-back candidate, Talbot could be the ideal candidate. His run up to signing with the Canes would be nearly identical to Mrazek’s. He’s coming off two poor seasons in Edmonton, followed by a horrific stint in Philadelphia after the trade deadline.

While Talbot’s numbers the past three years have been awful, he hasn’t exactly played for stellar defensive teams in Edmonton and Philadelphia. However, in the two seasons before that as Edmonton’s starter, and before that as a backup for the New York Rangers, Talbot’s numbers were stellar, with no save percentage below .917 and no goals-against average below 2.55 in a four-year span.

Similarly to Mrazek, Talbot would be coming in on a one-year deal to try and recapture his past form and earn a bigger deal the next summer.

If the Canes are going to go the Ned and a veteran route, Talbot would be my choice.

While the options aren’t great if the Canes don’t see eye to eye with Mrazek or McElhinney, they are out there. No one knows what will really happen between now and July 1, as things could change between the Canes and the two goalies’ camps, and Waddell’s comments could be nothing more than a negotiating tactic to remind Mrazek and McElhinney that free agency is a two-way street..

It was always likely that the Canes would only bring back, at most, one of the two goalies, and Nedeljkovic would be in the mix. Pairing him with another bounce-back free agent may not be Plan A, but it is a viable alternative, and one that has worked for this team before.