Hurricanes Must Brace for Impact with Mrazek in Net

Just a few years ago, Petr Mrazek was the answer to the Detroit Red Wings’ long-term problems in net. Fast-forward to the present and he’s regressed. He’s not even a question mark at this stage. Oh, to be clear, the Carolina Hurricanes should know by now what they have in Mrazek. As far as any dreams of legitimately contending go, he’s a non-starter, literally.

Hurricanes a Powerhouse on Paper, Except…

From a win-loss perspective, the 27-year-old is admittedly getting the job done… at least for now, until he isn’t any longer. Mrazek’s 10-4-1, but it should be readily apparent that mark has more to do with the team in front of him than his skillset. He may be perfectly adequate, but, if you look at the Hurricanes’ stats this season, goaltending that’s simply adequate sticks out like the sore thumb of a hitchhiker on the road to nowhere.

Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes
Petr Mrazek – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Hurricanes have a potent attack with three players having scored 20 or more points so far. A total of nine have hit double digits, the same as the Washington Capitals, who lead the league in goals scored. Of note, two of those Hurricanes are defenseman: Dougie Hamilton (23) and Jaccob Slavin (12), which simply serves as further indication of how balanced their offense is. What’s arguably most impressive is how that defense has given up a second-ranked 29.0 shots per game. The Metropolitan Division-rival (and leading) Capitals? 31.4.

Were it not for their middle-of-the-pack 3.00 goals-against average, the Hurricanes would arguably be the most complete in the league, no exaggeration. As it stands now, they’re only in third place in the Metropolitan, nine points behind those same Caps.

Mrazek vs. Reimer

Granted, it’s not all on Mrazek. Backup James Reimer shoulders some of the blame with a 3.07 GAA. Nevertheless, Reimer’s pedestrian .903 save percentage is higher than Mrazek’s mediocre .902. Even if the Hurricanes play a different game in front of each of their goalies and arguably haven’t yet found confidence in Reimer, all that implies is they already have confidence in Mrazek. This is as good as it gets.

Carolina Hurricanes James Reimer
Carolina Hurricanes goalie James Reimer – (Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

Bottom line is this: When the guy (Reimer) general manager Don Waddell had to take on in order to get rid of Scott Darling’s contract is technically outplaying you, chances are good you’re not the guy when all is said and done. And, judging by the modest two-year, $6.25 million deal the Canes signed Mrazek to after his 2018-19 rebound season, they know it too.

There’s little denying that Mrazek is coming off a good season. He went 23-14-3 and helped lead the Hurricanes to an Eastern Conference Final berth. However, he platooned in and out with Curtis McElhinney throughout the regular season and, in the end, Mrazek found himself on the bench in favor of the latter for the last two games of the four-game sweep after allowing 10 goals in Games 1 and 2. At the end of the day, it’s understandable for that to be the franchise-wide fear moving forward, especially with his stats line so far this season: that Mrazek can’t get it done as a No. 1, that he’s only effective in a limited capacity.

A Brief History of Bad Hurricanes Goaltending

While it’s hard to blame Waddell for re-signing Mrazek and not the 36-year-old McElhinney, there’s little doubt: Mrazek must not have been Plan A. That isn’t to say McElhinney should have been, but at least McElhinney arguably deserved more of a shot, especially considering how this team has taken shape over the last few seasons. Hell, dating back nearly a decade, after the shine had worn off from Cam Ward’s 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy and his effectiveness went with it, goaltending has been a consistent problem for the Canes.

To be clear, that’s with regard not just to in-net performance, but the managerial decisions that have led to the lack of results. For starters, Ward was re-signed to one contract too many. Then, Waddell’s predecessor, Ron Francis, traded for Scott Darling’s rights, thinking the guy who had got in his first NHL game as a 26-year-old and only found success in relief playing for the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, would be Ward’s successor. Francis then signed the unproven-as-a-starter Darling, who now had all the leverage in negotiations as a pending unrestricted free agent, to a relatively rich contract.

Cam Ward Hurricanes
Ex-Carolina Hurricanes goaltenders Cam Ward and Scott Darling – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now, having unburdened themselves of Darling’s contract by taking on Reimer’s, the Hurricanes find themselves in much the same situation. They’re attached at the hip to a goalie, who has never found lasting success as a full-fledged No. 1 in Mrazek.

Enter Alex Nedeljkovic

At least in McElhinney’s case, his role would have been clearly defined, to help bring along highly touted prospect Alex Nedeljkovic, who remains at a standstill at No. 3 on the organizational depth chart. Don’t forget, Nedeljkovic won the Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League last season.

Goalies have been promoted for far less. You would think the accomplishment would have been enough to get Nedeljkovic a long look at the NHL level, which has to be the ultimate goal, based on his second-round draft pedigree (2014) and performance up to now in the minors. Even if it’s just as a backup for now, he’s earned that much.

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

Admittedly, there’s a second school of thought: If the Hurricanes truly believed Nedeljkovic was ready, they would have given him his shot by now, at least more than the two appearances he’s gotten (.953 save percentage, for the record). However, is it really that out of the realm of possibilities that a team that has failed to make the right decision with regard to its goaltending time after time for the better part of a decade is mucking it up once again? That Waddell took one look at Nedeljkovic’s two-way contract and waiver-exempt status and pre-emptively made the decision Reimer was his backup?

Sure, Waddell’s official party line is that the backup position went to the most deserving goalie and Nedeljkovic had just as much chance as anybody to earn it. However, Reimer’s performance up to now cannot have been what he envisioned as justification for his controversial decision, can he?

There is no hard proof to that effect, with the newly acquired Anton Forsberg actually having been the final goaltending cut in training camp this past fall. Of course, all that could mean is the Hurricanes knew their plan for Nedeljkovic ahead of time and wasted no time cutting him.

Goaltending is Canes’ Achilles Heel

To be fair, as alluded to earlier, the Hurricanes as an organization have built an on-ice goliath in all other respects. They deserve much respect for that, but every team has an Achilles heel. Like the San Jose Sharks with Martin Jones, goaltending is the Hurricanes’, and almost exactly like with the Sharks, there are goaltending alternatives to consider, many of which apply here, with one huge exception: Nedeljkovic is further along than Josef Korenar.

No one is suggesting you give Nedeljkovic the reins right away. If he’s the Hurricanes goalie of the future, you want to bring him along slowly. Maybe not at the glacial pace the Hurricanes have been up to now, but what’s done is done. All the Hurricanes can do now is assess the current situation, which is bad, and act accordingly. If Waddell wants to do as much as possible to assure himself and his charges of a different result than the disappointment and heartache of last spring, he can.

Don Waddell Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Of course, it’s going to take some impressive wheeling and dealing on Waddell’s part. He has to mitigate the salary cap, to which the Hurricanes are close. Even if the Hurricanes have enough space to call up Nedlejkovic and bury Reimer’s contract, Waddell would ideally have someone take on the latter’s contract. After all, Mrazek has proven to be more than capable, as long as he’s given enough support, which Reimer unfortunately doesn’t provide.

If you’re going to keep one, you may as well keep the younger goalie with the cheaper contract. That’s Mrazek. It’s also technically Nedeljkovic. Whereas Mrazek would be an ideal backup at this stage, the Hurricanes honestly don’t know what they’ve got in Nedeljkovic until they give him a longer look than they have. For all they know, he’s the goalie for which they’ve been looking, going on a decade now.

Thankfully, Mrazek’s contract lasts only up to 2021, like Reimer’s. So, the Hurricanes can continue to run with Mrazek if they so choose, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get a leg up on Nedeljkovic’s development, towards him becoming the starter they must hope he can be, that they so desperately need.

True, at this point, seeing as he’s already in his mid-twenties, Nedeljkovic could just as easily turn into another Darling, only one with better cost control. Seeing as Darling was admittedly lights-out as a backup for a certain other powerhouse team, even going on to win the Stanley Cup in 2014-15, would that be so bad? Even a better backup would prop up Mrazek and vastly improve their current goaltending situation, one that risks costing them a Cup of their own.