At this point one year ago, the goaltending situation for the Carolina Hurricanes looked pretty settled. Scott Darling was entering the second year of a four-year, $16m contract. Petr Mrazek had been brought in on a one-year deal, partially to spell Darling, partially to push him.
Then everything changed.
Darling was injured at the end of the preseason, and Curtis McElhinney was picked up off of waivers. By December, Darling was the one on the waiver wire. The rest, as they say, is history. The Mrazek/McElhinney duo posted a 43-15-5 record with a .913 save percentage and 2.48 goals against average as they led the Canes back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The offseason has once again shaken things up.
Both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney tested free agency. Mrazek ended up re-signing with the Hurricanes (a two-year deal for $6.25m); while Curtis McElhinney landed in Tampa Bay. Scott Darling’s contract was offloaded to the Florida Panthers (who have bought him out), and as part of that deal, James Reimer is now a Hurricane.
So where does this leave the Canes for this year?
2018-19 Totals: 40GP, 23-14-3, 4 Shutouts, .914 SV%, 2.39 GAA
Career Totals: 223GP, 101-78-26, 18 Shutouts, .911 SV%, 2.61 GAA
Petr Mrazek is the presumptive number one in net. The two-year term of his contract makes it plain that while Mrazek might not be the Canes’ answer for the long-term, he is the answer for right now.
Mrazek’s numbers from last year paint the picture of a solid NHL goaltender. His regular-season .914 save percentage was middle of the road, but his 2.39 GAA was eighth in the league for goalies who played more than ten games. During the course of the regular season, Mrazek and McElhinney complemented each other well. Yet in the end, Mrazek’s play in the final weeks of the season earned him the starter’s net for the first-round series against Washington.
In the playoffs, Mrazek’s performance lacked consistency. While he posted two shutouts in the post-season, there were also a few games that got away from him - and by extension - the Canes. After Mrazek picked up an injury that forced him out of the second-round series with the Islanders, McElhinney started four of the last six playoff games for the Canes. Ultimately, Mrazek finished the post-season with a .894 save percentage and 2.73 GAA.
With the defensive unit seemingly as good, if not better, than last year, Petr Mrazek will be asked to be a reliable NHL goalie. To do that, Mrazek will need to post numbers more or less in line with his regular-season figures from last year. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.
The Battle for The Backup
There are three goaltenders in the mix to serve as Mrazek’s primary backup: Anton Forsberg, James Reimer, and Alex Nedeljkovic.
2018-19 Totals (AHL - Rockford IceHogs): 36GP, 15-15-2, 0 Shutouts, .919 SV%, 2.64 GAA
Career NHL Totals: 45GP, 11-24-4, 0 Shutouts, .901 SV%, 3.21 GAA
Anton Forsberg joined the Canes as part of the trade that sent Calvin de Haan to Chicago. Forsberg has seen significant minutes in net during the preseason, and most recently he played the full sixty against Nashville on Wednesday night. He impressed for much of the game, with a few highlight-reel saves.
With two preseason games to go, Forsberg is very much in the mix to start the season as Mrazek’s primary backup. His play has been solid, but he also will benefit from some roster management intrigue.
Neither Reimer nor Forsberg is waiver-exempt. If they are put on waivers, any team in the NHL can claim them. However, James Reimer’s contract ($3.4m/year, two years remaining) is a tough ask for most GMs. Since the Canes are right up against the salary cap, it’s likely that Reimer rather than Forsberg might be put on waivers for two reasons.
1) It’s less likely that another team will claim Reimer due to the size and term of the deal.
2) Forsberg’s contract ($0.775m/year, one year remaining) is exactly the sort of contract that an NHL GM might roll the dice on.
2018-19 Totals: 36GP, 13-12-5, 0 Shutouts, .900 SV%, 3.05 GAA
Career Totals: 338GP, 144-120-39, 21 Shutouts, .914 SV%, 2.81 GAA
James Reimer joins Carolina after spending the last three years in Flordia. While that may send up some red flags considering how bad Florida’s goaltending was last year, Reimer wasn’t entirely to blame for that. Overall, Florida gave up 280 goals last year, which put them 28th out of 31 NHL teams. With the Canes, Reimer will now have a stout defense in front of him.
The case for Reimer is that he’s a ten-year NHL veteran with over 300 games played. He’s logged time in Toronto, San Jose, and Florida. While his numbers in recent years have not been great, he offers a stable veteran presence in the locker room and on the ice. The comparisons to Curtis McElhinney are obvious, although he lacks the run of form that McElhinney brought last year.
2018-19 Totals (AHL - Charlotte Checkers): 51GP, 34-9-5, 4 Shutouts, .916 SV%, 2.26 GAA
Career NHL Totals: 2GP, 1-0-0, 0 Shutouts, .953 SV%, 1.33 GAA
Presumably, Alex Nedeljkovic is an important part of the Canes plans going forward. After all, he was named the AHL goaltender of the year last season and led the Charlotte Checkers to the Calder Cup. Yet, whether or not he will log significant time in the NHL this year remains to be seen.
There are a few issues with naming Ned the backup at the start of the season. The first is a roster squeeze. Ned is waiver exempt, so he was sent to Charlotte without fear of being claimed by another team. Reimer and Forsberg are not. Placing either of them on waivers is akin to cutting them.
The second issue is that Ned won’t play nearly as often for the Canes as he would in Charlotte. For a goaltender, reps are important. An NHL backup can expect to play once a week, which might not be often enough given where Ned’s at in his career.
On the positive side of the ledger, Ned has played very well in Charlotte and in his one start with the Canes last year in a win against the Vancouver Canucks. It’s not at all inconceivable that once the roster issues are sorted out, Ned could find his way back to Raleigh.
Finally, there’s the man who will coach these goalies. Jason Muzzatti joins the Canes from Michigan State. He replaces Mike Bales, who accepted a position with the Buffalo Sabres back in June.
Muzzatti, 49, was teammates at Michigan State with Rod Brind’Amour way back in the 1988-89 season. With Brind’Amour’s known affinity to delegate, Muzzatti will be counted on for numerous coaching details. Also, it will presumably be his job to determine the starting goaltender for each game.
Most preseason predictions put the Canes in position to compete for a Metro Division title. In order to do that, they’ll need goaltending that is at least as good as last year’s. Petr Mrazek is obviously the favored candidate to provide that for the Canes. However, as we saw last year, things can change quickly when you’re a number one NHL goaltender. The meteoric rise of Jordan Binnington - and the subsequent Stanley Cup win for the St. Louis Blues - attest to the importance of goaltending. If the Canes are to fulfill the expectations for this year, goaltending will be key.