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Exploring Carolina’s options for the second goalie

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Alex Nedeljkovic should head into the 2021-22 season as the Canes top netminder, but with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer both UFAs, the second spot is a big question for Carolina.

Chicago Blackhawks v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

Carolina Hurricanes fans are certainly used to offseason questions about the goaltending, but the questions heading into the 2021-22 season are a little different than those of late 2010s.

The Canes have found their guy in Alex Nedeljkovic, a long-time member of the organization who finally got his extended NHL chance in 2021 and made the absolute most of it. Nedeljkovic, who was a Calder Trophy finalist this past season, took over the top spot in Carolina’s crease, earning almost every start from Rod Brind’Amour in the postseason.

Nedeljkovic is a restricted free agent, but one the Hurricanes will be re-signing. We took a look at what that contract could look like here.

With Nedeljkovic the presumed “starter” so to speak, or at least 1A goalie, the question comes to who the Canes’ backup, or 1B guy, will be in the upcoming season. Both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, Carolina’s one-two before Nedeljkovic broke through, are unrestricted free agents, so the Hurricanes don’t actually have an in-house option under contract that would make sense.

So, what does Carolina do with the second goalie spot? Will the Canes re-sign either Mrazek or Reimer, or will Carolina hit the unfamiliar open market for a completely fresh option?

It’s a big decision for the team, one that becomes especially important in a case where Nedeljkovic regresses some from his impressive rookie season.

Here’s a look at some of the options:

Petr Mrazek

So, this one seems like it would maybe be the ideal option for the Carolina Hurricanes moving forward.

With no disrespect to Reimer, more on him later, Mrazek is clearly the better goalie and option for the Canes if Don Waddell and company are looking to make it a 1A-1B situation rather than a clear-cut starter-backup one in the crease. That 1A-1B option, the increasingly more popular route for NHL teams, feels like the much smarter choice with Nedeljkovic’s relative inexperience.

With that being said, re-signing Mrazek would make a whole lot of sense for the Hurricanes if the two sides can agree on a fair deal. Mrazek has played his best NHL hockey in a Carolina uniform, compiling a 50-32-8 record, .911 save percentage and 2.48 GAA over 92 games in a Canes sweater.

He was one of the main reasons the Hurricanes made a return to the playoffs in 2018-19, and he’s put together some really marvelous performances for Carolina over the past three seasons.

He’s a guy that the fans love, and by all impressions seems to love the situation he has been in the last few years. Re-signing Mrazek makes a ton of sense, but there are some hurdles.

For a deeper look into Mrazek’s re-signability, here’s a story for you.

But in short, the two things to consider are the money and also Mrazek’s willingness to sign as the second option for a team when there may be another out there willing to make him the guy in the crease.

As for the money, as mentioned in the story linked above, signing both Mrazek and Nedeljkovic combined for about $7 million a year, roughly the league-average for the two goaltenders, probably isn’t too far fetched.

If the sides can agree to a deal, and Mrazek is interested in returning to Carolina as the 1B to Nedeljkovic’s 1A, then this is probably the ideal option for the Hurricanes.

James Reimer

Mrazek of course isn’t the only free agent goalie from the Canes roster, as Reimer also will be looking to sign a contract somewhere as a UFA.

And while Mrazek would maybe be that 1B option for Nedeljkovic, Reimer would certainly be more of a traditional backup option if the Canes were to go with him. That’s not to say Reimer isn’t good or wouldn’t start a good chunk of games, but Nedeljkovic would be a more clear-cut No. 1.

If that’s what the Canes wanted to do, give the reins fully to Nedeljkovic, then Reimer wouldn’t be the worst option. His 2.66 GAA and .910 save percentage over the last two seasons are as good as he’s had anywhere in his career, and he’s served as a great second option to Mrazek (and Nedeljkovic while Mrazek was hurt in 2021).

Reimer would still get his fair share of games, but the power between Nedeljkovic and Reimer would certainly be different than the one between Nedeljkovic and Mrazek.

As far as the money, Reimer would maybe come at a slightly lower price than Mrazek, but probably not by enough for that to make the huge difference. Reimer’s deal had a cap hit of $3.4 million in 2021, while Mrazek’s was $3.125. Even if those flipped, it probably wouldn’t be the difference maker. Reimer may be a slightly cheaper option, but not enough of a budget option for that to be the reasoning.

Free Agents or Trades

So of course the other option for the Hurricanes is to bring in an entirely new goalie, one that wasn’t on the team’s roster during the 2021 campaign.

A trade is, of course, always an option, and the Canes have some potential sign-and-trade guys that could be a part of a deal. There’s a whole world of possibilities there, and the added wrinkle of the expansion draft could make for some intrigue.

But the more likely option would be on the free agent market, where the Canes would have two paths if they aren’t re-signing Mrazek or Reimer: either get an upgrade, an unlikely path, or take a significant downgrade as a money-saving path.

As for improving, the problem there for the Canes is that there aren’t too many clear-cut improvements over Mrazek on the market, and certainly not for a price the Canes would want to play.

Philipp Grubauer and Tuukka Rask headline the class, though they likely would be too pricey for the Canes and also wouldn’t be realistic options to be 1B to Nedeljkovic.

Others like Frederik Andersen, Chris Driedger or Jaroslav Halak may fall into a similar space as Mrazek, while goalies like Brian Elliott or even old Cane Curtis McElhinney could be available as the more typical backup option.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it feels like finding a way to re-sign Mrazek for around that $3 million AAV mark may be the best-case scenario for the Hurricanes.

He’s been around the team, and the tandem of him and Nedeljkovic could be perfect for what Carolina needs. Moving completely away from a strong 1B with Nedeljkovic not even having a full NHL season under his belt would be risky, and Mrazek makes a whole lot of sense.