The Carolina Hurricanes recently discovered just how deep or rather how shallow their goaltending depth was when both Petr Mrazek and James Reimer went down with injuries in the same game. Luckily, the emergency goaltender, David Ayres came to the rescue and pulled off the unthinkable and played well enough for the team to rally in the third period and come away with a victory. Unfortunately, he could not continue in that role in the games following, so it was up to the depth to get the job done.
The Hurricanes were lucky to have a solid number one goaltender for 12 seasons when Cam Ward ruled the crease. Ever since he left, they have struggled to find consistent goaltending, in fact, they have not had the same tandem for two seasons in a row since he signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018. However, life goes on, and the hope will be that someone in their depth chart eventually takes over the huge pads he left in the net.
Once the goaltender of the future for the Detroit Red Wings, Mrazek seems to have found a new home with the Hurricanes. Signed as an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in the summer of 2018 to a one-year show-me contract, he was very impressive in his first foray into the storm posting a 23-14-3 record along with a 2.39 goals against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%). He also led the Canes to their biggest point total and first playoff appearance in nine seasons.
That performance convinced the Hurricanes to re-sign Mrazek to a two-year contract extension going into the 2019-20 season. To date, he isn’t having the same breakout season he had in 2018-19, but his numbers are still relatively good with a 21-16-2 record to go along with a 2.69 GAA and a .905 SV%. He clearly is still the starting goaltender, but Reimer has been nipping at his heels all season long. He’s going to have to start being more consistent if he hopes to keep his status as number one when the 2020-21 season begins.
Mrazek can be a big game goaltender with his quick feet and amazing athleticism. He also has impressive anticipation and play-recognition, as evidenced by the plethora of highway robbery saves he made in 2018-19. If he can get back to that form, the Hurricanes won’t have to worry about goaltending for a while, as he is only 28-years-old.
The latest backup to grace the crease of the Hurricanes is former Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks and Florida Panthers netminder James Reimer. Acquired in the trade that sent 2018-19 backup Scott Darling to the Florida Panthers, he has seen his star fade a bit over the years. Just like Mrazek, he was also a goaltender of the future until he couldn’t provide the elite type of goaltending that was expected in Toronto. He was then traded to the Sharks where he posted an eye-catching 1.62 GAA to go along with a .938 SV%. That late-season surge brought the money in free agency where he signed a lucrative five-year, $17 million contract with the Panthers.
Reimer spent three of those five years in the Sunshine State as Roberto Luongo’s backup posting a 2.85 GAA and a .912 SV% before getting traded to his current team, the Hurricanes. Acquired to be Mrazek’s backup, he has often challenged that assumption this season, leading to a bit of a goaltending controversy. In 25 games this season he has a 2.66 GAA and a .914 SV% to go along with three shutouts.
Reimer has proven to be a great partner for Mrazek, but I don’t really see a clear line between starter and backup. According to starts, Mrazek definitely has the edge, but Reimer’s numbers and consistent play has blurred those lines a bit. We will have to wait and see if that distinction becomes a little more clear when hockey eventually resumes.
Because of the injuries to Mrazek and Reimer, Nedeljkovic got thrown into the fire at the NHL level. Prior to this season, he only had two games of experience, and one of those appearances was only a period and a half. This season he got a lot more as he started three games while both of the Hurricanes’ goalies were on the shelf. He ended up going 1-2 with a 3.05 GAA and a .887 SV% before giving way to backup Anton Forsberg.
Putting aside the average performance during the pressure-filled atmosphere of a playoff race, Nedeljkovic is still a top prospect for the Hurricanes. He is coming off a very solid season in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers where he posted an impressive 2.26 GAA and a .916 SV%. He also led the team to an AHL championship and won goaltender of the year. So there should be no panic as to if he’s ready for more NHL minutes next season and beyond.
Despite being the veteran over Nedeljkovic, Anton Forsberg comes in as the number three goaltender on the Hurricanes’ depth chart. Brought over with defenseman Gustav Forsling in an offseason trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, he only started three games in 2019-20 going 1-1 with a 3.35 GAA and .897 SV%. It was somewhat surprising that he did not get the call following the injuries, especially after he started 35 games as Corey Crawford’s backup during the 2018-19 season. Instead, he spent most of the season with the Checkers in the AHL splitting the starting duties with Nedeljkovic.
It will be interesting to see if the Hurricanes re-sign Forsberg, as he’s a UFA this offseason. He did not put up spectacular numbers in the AHL or NHL this season and he’s already behind a younger goaltender on the depth chart. After getting a taste in the big leagues as a backup, I’m sure he wants to be in a place where that could feasibly happen again. He’s still relatively young at 27-years-old and he’s already shown that he can play in the NHL. I could see a team desperate for backup goaltending take a chance on him.
Selected in the fourth round by the Hurricanes, Booth has played most of his professional career in the ECHL. He is only 22-years-old, and traditionally goaltenders take longer to develop, so there is no reason to panic yet. With Nedeljkovic and Forsberg currently ahead of him on the depth chart, his time at the AHL level has been limited. He has been recalled on multiple occasions but has only appeared in a grand total of 15 games at that level.
Booth has all the tools to succeed, with a projectable frame and impressive lateral movement in his toolbox. He also has good rebound control and an adequate glove hand. So he definitely has potential as a long term prospect for the Hurricanes. Next season he will battle, once again, to gain a permanent job at the AHL level. If Forsberg is not retained, he should be well-positioned to do just that.
It turned out one season in the BCHL with the Penticton Vees was all Jack LaFontaine needed to get his career back on track after struggling in his first two seasons at the University of Michigan. He had a very successful stint in the BCHL going 30-13-1 with a 2.19 GAA and a .923 SV%. Then in his return to the NCAA, he continued that momentum at the University of Minnesota where he finished the 2019-20 campaign with a 2.55 GAA and a .919 SV%.
LaFontaine had a breakthrough season with the Minnesota Gophers, showcasing his intense work ethic and impressive leadership skills in the dressing room.
I’ve never been the most talented goalie but I’ve always been the hardest working. Nobody ever out-works me, and I say that in the most humble, modest way possible…But I’m a raw competitor. I hate to lose. That’s what motivates me is that determination to keep the puck out of the net.Jack LaFontaine (from ‘LaFontaine calm amid the storm in Gophers’ crease’ – Duluth News Tribune, 2/26/20)
It’s unclear where LaFontaine will be next season, as he could graduate to the AHL and join the Checkers or return to the Gophers to play another season. Though, he will need to sign a contract first, as he is currently unsigned. One thing is for sure, though, he has the work ethic and the drive to make it to the NHL. If he continues to develop, he could become a very serviceable backup for the Hurricanes in the future.
Selected in the fifth round by the Hurricanes in 2016, Helvig played all but one game in the ECHL for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits and the Jacksonville Icemen. His numbers weren’t all that good either, as he had a combined GAA of over three and a SV% of just over .900. He also got into a bit of hot water outside of hockey, getting detained in March on suspicion of battery. He is currently being investigated and won’t be playing again until he is proven innocent. If that ultimately happens, he is going to have a tall mountain to climb to make it to the AHL, let alone the NHL, as the next goaltenders are approaching him at lightning speed.
After being drafted in the seventh round by the Hurricanes in 2018, Jacob Kucharski spent most of the 2018-19 season playing with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers. He only started eight games though, going 2-4-1 along with a 3.87 GAA and .867 SV%. After the season ended, he committed to Providence College of the NCAA but never saw any action as a freshman. This is not uncommon, as most teams in the college ranks use more experienced goaltenders as their starters unless a freshman is exceptional. Next season he is slated to start with American International College (AIC), this time as a sophomore.
Kucharski has good size for a goaltender at 6-foot-4 and has great athletic ability. It’s unclear right now if he will make it anywhere in the NHL since we have no recent information to go upon. He didn’t play anywhere this season, so we don’t know how far he’s progressed from his draft year. Hopefully, he can get some starts with AIC and continue his development next season.
Drafted in the fourth round back in 2017, Eetu Makiniemi split the 2019-20 season with Ilves of the Liiga and KOOVEE of the Mestis (Finland’s version of the AHL). He performed better statistics-wise in the Liiga with a 1.53 GAA and a .933 SV% compared to a 3.01 GAA and a .900 SV% in the Mestis. However, he won more often than not finishing with a record of 14-4-8. In nine games in the Liiga, he never had an outright loss either.
Like most Finnish goaltenders, Mäkiniemi is very adept at his craft. As Hurricanes’ head European scout Robert Kron remarked,
…he has great athleticism, strong fundamentals and great will to become better. He needs to get physically stronger, and with young goalies they need to work on all areas of their game.
Mäkiniemi was also compared to Bruins’ goaltender Tuukka Rask by Marc Bambino of McKeen’s Hockey, and that’s high praise as he’s probably the top Finnish netminder in the NHL today. If he becomes even a fraction of what he is, the Hurricanes will be very happy.
Finally, we have 2019 World Juniors standout Pyotr Kochetkov. He may be on the bottom of the depth chart right now, but he could be climbing the ranks in no time. After being passed over in two drafts, the Hurricanes finally took him in the second round in 2019. It doesn’t take an expert to see why especially after his performance in the WJC. He didn’t come into the tournament as the number one option for Russia but finished it as the starter and one of the reasons why they came away with a bronze medal.
After that, Kochetkov set his sights on the KHL with powerhouse SKA St Petersburg. Unfortunately because of his age, he never really got into many games finishing the season with just six starts. He was then dealt to Podolsk Vityaz, so that also threw a wrench into things. After that, he only got eight more starts before the season was canceled. Regardless, he is still a legitimate NHL prospect with the skills needed to become a number one goaltender. He works extremely hard on his game and never quits, so it would be foolish to bet against him.
When Kochetkov was not plying his trade in the KHL, he was in the VHL wrestling starts away from future 2020 first-round pick Yaroslav Askarov. That’s no small feat as he is projected to become an all-star goaltender in the NHL. If he can bring his propensity for being calm and calculated in the crease to the highest level, the Canes could have the next Cam Ward waiting in the wings.
Hurricanes Need More NHL-Ready Depth
Beyond the current goaltending tandem of Mrazek and Reimer, the Hurricanes don’t really have a lot of depth. After Nedeljkovic, the pool gets to be a little thin especially when it comes to players who are ready for the NHL. Forsberg is probably not going to be re-signed, especially after being usurped by the aforementioned Nedeljkovic in the depth chart, and Booth has yet to grab a foothold in the AHL.
Related: 5 Hurricanes First-round Targets
The Hurricanes do have some intriguing options down the line in Mäkiniemi and Kochetkov, but they are still years away from potentially making an impact in the NHL. So, they better hope that Mrazek and Reimer can hold down the fort until Nedeljkovic is ready for the starting reigns, or goaltending could be the thing that holds them back from making it to the next level.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.