Goaltending and Special Teams are the final piece of the puzzle as we take a look at the first half report card for the Carolina Hurricanes. James Reimer and Petr Mrazek have combined to be a mostly league-average tandem, but Reimer has slightly outpaced Mrazek statistically in the first half. The power play has experienced marked improvement from a season ago, and the penalty kill has been near the top of the league. The Canes will need that strong effort on special teams to continue as well as a steady level of performance in net if they wish to make the postseason for the second consecutive season.
20 games, .921 SV%, 2.47 Goals Against Average
Acquired in the offseason to serve as the platoon partner with Mrazek, Reimer has seen less action, but has thus far outpaced Mrazek in almost every category. After an average start, Reimer has played his best hockey in the past month, winning three of his last four outings (3-0-1) including two sterling performances to close out the season against the Kings and Islanders.
While it is unclear who will carry the load down the stretch, Reimer has made his case for increased playing time. In fact, compared to the rest of the NHL, Reimer has been the second-best overall backstop when blending a serious of advanced numbers for review. When incorporating all aspects, including rebound percentage, save percentage above expected, and a handful of other metrics, only the Bruins’ Tuukka Rask grades out better than Reimer.
Reimer has consistently shown steady positioning that limits the overall movement needed from the big netminder, which is a contrast in styles from the smaller and shiftier Mrazek. By making more saves based on his precision rather than his athleticism, Reimer’s game has been able to remain relatively consistent over the past few months.
In reality, most expect the Canes to continue what they have done for the past season and a half: Roughly splitting time between two competent goalies, regardless of the “hotness” of a specific individual. But one does have to wonder if the split might shift in Reimer’s favor if the current trends in net hold form.
32 games, .905 SV%, 2.59 Goals Against Average
Returning to Raleigh for a second season, Mrazek has again earned the greater share of playing time in net for the Canes. 2019-20 however has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Czech netminder as he has followed a hot start with a run of fairly uneven play since the holiday season.
What has appeared to plague Mrazek at times this season is his unsettled nature in the crease. While his aggressiveness in challenging shooters and seeking to eliminate the top of the net has benefitted him at times in eliminating good scoring opportunities, it has also put him in bad positions when opponents have shown a greater level of patience. In fairness, his run of six out of seven starts that saw him yield three or more goals between December 17th and January 5th also coincided with perhaps the worst run of defensive play (and play in general) from the team as a whole this season.
While last season it was made clear by Rod Brind’Amour that Mrazek would be the guy going into the postseason, Mrazek’s place as the true 1A role has not been clarified. In order to maintain that position, Mrazek will need to provide a more consistent level of play for the remainder of the season.
The question with Mrazek, and Reimer for that matter, really focuses on if either of these netminders can step into the role of “starter” down the stretch and for a potential postseason run. And if the answer is no, how might the Canes go about improving the goalie situation moving forward - or, if they decide to stay with what they have, will history repeat itself with a playoff timeshare?
The smart bet is to expect that Reimer and Mrazek will continue the current setup and the Canes will hope to again carry a rested tandem down the stretch and hopefully into the postseason.
Perhaps the most improved aspect of the Hurricanes’ performance this season has been their power play. The most obvious change was the addition of Andrei Svechnikov to the top power play unit, as the teenager quickly established himself as a constant threat on the right circle. The other side of the ice has featured a high/low game between Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho, while the point was previously manned mostly by Dougie Hamilton. Replacing the production and threat from Hamilton will be difficult, but Jaccob Slavin has continued to grow as a player and will be counted on to provide something in that role, even if it is a reduced shooting role from that spot. One of the things that has waned of late is the presence and impact of a solid net-front effort. Erik Haula was hard-nosed early on, but due to injuries and other significant events, his impact has been diminished.
Nevertheless, the Canes currently weigh in at 10th in the NHL at 21.3%, a full 4% better than a season ago. Not only is the emergence of Svechnikov (five PP goals, 10 PP assists) as a scorer a big factor, but the diversity of the two units has given the Canes a chance to attack in multiple ways. Having dangerous threats in three distinct areas of the ice has given the Canes tremendous looks whenever they can enter the zone cleanly and move the puck within the zone.
While the power play has been a solid unit thus far, it must find a way to maintain its level without Hamilton in order to stay above the playoff cut line in the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.
One of the most consistent groups that the Canes have had over the past several seasons is the penalty kill. Even as names have changed, this unit has continued to be in the upper half of the league or better. The toughness of players such as Brock McGinn is certainly a factor for Carolina, as they have a wealth of depth in terms of players willing and capable of performing the task required.
The more interesting part aspect of the Canes penalty kill is the performance and effort from their high-skill players on what is traditionally a more gritty group. Aho and Teravainen, arguably the most heralded offensive performers for the Canes, have evolved into two of the most trusted penalty killers on the roster. They have combined for four short-handed goals, helping the Canes become the league’s most potent team when playing a man down, tallying a league-leading nine shorthanded goals.
Perhaps the secret for the Canes has been the fact that this specialty unit basically utilizes most of the roster. Warren Foegele has notched three of his 10 goals while short-handed. Jordan Staal is a key cog who takes many of the difficult defensive zone faceoffs. Slavin and Brett Pesce have logged heavy minutes on the kill, and lastly, the play in goal has been sterling to back it all up. The structure is there, but the addition of the high-end skill that litters the units has created a penalty kill that has raised eyebrows around the league.