Monday morning was a “good news, bad news” situation for the Hurricanes. The good news is that the team will likely be getting some reinforcements for Tuesday night’s game in Chicago, with Rod Brind’Amour saying the team hopes forwards Teuvo Teravainen, Jordan Martinook and Warren Foegele, who were all removed from the COVID protocol list last week, will be cleared to play. With Sheldon Rempal, Drew Shore and Joey Keane being sent down to the AHL, this seems likely.
The bad news is, following further evaluation Monday, the upper-body injury starting goalie Petr Mrazek suffered in Saturday’s game against the Dallas Stars is more serious than the team thought.
“It looks like it’s going to be a little longer than we had hoped,” Brind’Amour said. “So a little more serious damage there. Still not sure what the process is going to be. But I guess we were hoping for it to be a little better and it looks like it’s going to be a little longer.”
Brind’Amour also said it’s likely Mrazek will need surgery.
The news could obviously not come at a worse time for Mrazek and the Hurricanes. Despite missing the aforementioned players (and more) due to COVID issues, the Canes are off to a 5-1-0 start to the season, and Mrazek has played a major role in that.
He’s played some of his best hockey as a Hurricane, with a 2-1-0 record, two shutouts and league-leading .955 save percentage and goals-against average, both of which lead the league.
Now, in a condensed schedule in which having two reliable goalies is more important than ever, the Canes’ No. 1 will be going on the shelf for an as-yet undetermined length of time. So the question becomes, what now?
The answer is a little complicated, but it obviously starts with James Reimer. He’s played well in two starts and a relief appearance, with a 3-0-0 record, .918 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average.
Reimer has been a calm, steady force in net since joining the Canes last year, and his performance over a season and change should leave Carolina confident in him being able to step up and assume the No. 1 role.
There’s more to it than that, however. With the aforementioned condensed schedule, it can’t just be Reimer. The Hurricanes face three sets of back-to-backs this month alone. It’s not feasible, or probably even safe, to ask Reimer to start every game.
So, the Canes will need another goalie they can count on until Mrazek gets back. Enter Alex Nedlejkovic. Barring a trade, the Canes will likely turn to “Ned” to fill their second goalie spot, as he’s already been the No. 3 goalie on the active roster/taxi squad this year.
Brind’Amour has spoken multiple times about the need for a next-man-up mentality in this uncertain season, and that certainly applies to Nedeljkovic here. Since the team picked him in the second round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he’s played well at the lower levels, including being named the AHL’s goaltender of the year in the 2018-19 season and backstopping the Charlotte Checkers to the Calder Cup Championship that year.
Despite that, Nedeljkovic hasn’t gotten much of a chance to show his abilities at the NHL level, with five career starts. With Nedeljkovic on a one-way contract that expires after this season, the team needs to see what it has in him and determine if he’s part of their future plans. This is a chance to give him a fair shot to show his abilities and evaluate him.
You never want to talk about the “upside” for anyone with a serious injury, but they’re a part of life in professional sports, and usually mean an opportunity for someone else. In this case, that’s Nedeljkovic.
However, it’s still a little bit more complicated than that. Due to COVID concerns, the NHL will not have emergency backups in arenas this year. There is no possibility of a David Ayres sequel during the 2021 season. So, each team is required to travel with three goalies at all times; the third goalie can be on the active roster or taxi squad.
The Canes would seem likely to call up Antoine Bibeau, who they signed to a one-year, two-way contract this summer. Bibeau has made three career AHL starts. That would obviously remove a goalie from the Wolves, but Chicago would still have Jeremy Helvig, and with the Hurricanes sharing their affiliate with the Nashville Predators this year, it’s possible a player from that organization could serve as the Wolves’ other goalie.
There’s also always the possibility of a trade for a goalie (the Hurricanes were linked to Darcy Kuemper over the offseason), but at least for now, the Canes seem likely to roll with Reimer and Nedeljkovic at the NHL level.
There’s no doubt that Mrazek’s injury, and the fact that he’s going to miss time, is a big blow to the Hurricanes, but the team has options to fill the void in the meantime. How well those options stack up will play a major role in determining the ultimate outcome of the Hurricanes’ 2021 season.