Hurricanes Owe McElhinney Another Shot in Net

It should be an easy decision for the Carolina Hurricanes. Statistically speaking, they barely got adequate goaltending from Petr Mrazek in the playoffs. Curtis McElhinney showed better results in relief. With both slated to become unrestricted free agents, if they have to choose one, go with McElhinney, right? Right.

McElhinney’s Surprise Success

There’s little denying McElhinney and Mrazek exceeded expectations overall this season. Still, if the Hurricanes were able to make it to Round 3, it stands to reason they can do much more with elite goaltending, which unfortunately neither one of them provide.

Florida Panthers' Denis Malgin Carolina Hurricanes Curtis McElhinney
Curtis McElhinney and Florida Panthers forward Denis Malgin – (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

After all, the Hurricanes are a team that led the league in shots per game during the regular season (34.4) and allowed the third-least amount of shots (28.6). Nevertheless, the Hurricanes just barely made the playoffs by sneaking into a wild-card spot, albeit with 99 points, which would normally be more than enough.

Barring something incredibly unforeseen like the Hurricanes wooing Sergei Bobrovsky to sign in the summer, they’ve got to work with what they’ve got. Now, technically, that’s not a lot. With regard to their goalies with NHL experience, just Scott Darling, who has an .887 save percentage in two seasons with the Hurricanes, is under contract. And he’s a perfect buyout candidate.

Not all is lost. While McElhinney is coming off a career 20-11-2 season, he is also a 36-year-old career backup, meaning it’s very likely the Hurricanes would be able to get him to stay considering the success both have had this past season with him in nets. His $850,000 salary is also an indication it wouldn’t take a huge amount to keep him the fold.

McElhinney vs. Mrazek

In contrast, Mrazek made $1.5 million on his one-year deal with the Hurricanes. He took a paycut relative to his last deal, effectively betting on himself to prove the doubters wrong. To a certain extent he did, wresting the starting job away from McElhinney for the playoffs. He did have the (slightly) better season with a 23-14-3 record, after all.

Carolina Hurricanes Petr Mrazek
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Petr Mrazek – (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Nevertheless, it’s McElhinney who was last in nets to end the season, and not just as injury relief. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour simply switched goalies with Mrazek having gotten lit up by the Boston Bruins, and, in spite of how he was in nets as the Hurricanes got swept, it clearly wasn’t McElhinney’s fault. In Mrazek’s two games against the Bruins, he allowed 10 goals, with a .808 save percentage. McElhinney countered that performance with five goals against and a .906 save percentage.

Simply put, McElhinney was the better goalie when it mattered most. It may not have gotten the job done, but, if there’s only one job available next season, it should be his, especially seeing as it’s not as simple as choosing the better goalie.

There are various other factors at play. As alluded to earlier, the salary expectations of each could play a huge role. Mrazek may be looking for more money. Even if he isn’t, he may have expectations of being a No. 1 goalie at this stage of his career as he’s just 27. That would be his right too.

However, it shouldn’t be something the Hurricanes can promise him outright. Not with his track record over the last few seasons and not with the way things ended for him this season against the Bruins, riding the bench as McElhinney’s backup.

McElhinney’s Cheering Section

Truth be told, between Mrazek and McElhinny, neither screams No. 1. So, it would be wrong to present one or the other with a contract befitting that status. Thankfully, a stop-gap measure may be more what the Hurricanes need. Prospect Alex Nedeljkovic, who still has to be re-signed, continues to develop nicely. The 23-year-old is at the point where he could maybe challenge for an NHL job.

Alex Nedeljkovic Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes goalie Alex Nedeljkovic – (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

Assuming that’s the case, the Hurricanes would likely need a goalie with more experience who’s comfortable playing a larger role in the short term before being relegated to being more of a mentor. McElhinney fits the bill nicely, at least to a greater extent than Mrazek. And it isn’t as much a slight to Mrazek as it is a testament to McElhinney and his reputation as a team-first guy.

Hurricanes fans are well aware of Canadian-commentator Don Cherry for coining the “bunch of jerks” mantra. Even though Cherry’s an open critic of the Hurricanes’ post-game victory celebrations during the regular season, he’s an even bigger leader of McElhinney’s cheering section, constantly singing his praises. Cherry just as regularly admonishes the Toronto Maple Leafs for putting him on waivers at the start of the season, because of that aforementioned reputation and Garret Sparks’ lack of success, succeeding him in as the Leafs’ backup.

It obviously didn’t work out for the Leafs all that well, but it did for the Hurricanes, better than anyone could have imagined. Remember, at the time Darling had still been projected as the team’s potential starter.

Needless to say, the play of both McElhinney and Mrazek forced Darling down the depth chart. Right now, it’s that play that has pushed the former right to the top. McElhinney should be rewarded for his efforts, even if it’s not just his efforts that make him the right goalie for the Hurricanes to sign this summer. It’s just the perfect fit.