The goaltending position is an extremely volatile one.
We have seen otherwise-mediocre goalies burst onto the scene or come from out of nowhere and carry their teams to Stanley Cups, only to never again reach that level of play. A certain case 15 years ago in Raleigh comes to mind. Jordan Binnington, Tim Thomas and Matt Murray are some other examples within the last decade.
This is another conversation for another day, but this is the same reason the Hurricanes could still be wary of Alex Nedeljkovic being the future of their franchise. Small sample sizes can be misleading.
However, the point stands – a hot goalie can carry a team a long way. The Hurricanes, as mentioned last week, are a legitimate cup contender. If a goalie finds a rhythm behind them at the right time, they’re definitely in business.
Petr Mrazek returned after a three-month hiatus due to thumb surgery, after a scorching-hot start to the season, featuring two shutouts in his three full games. Suffice to say, he picked up where he left off in his first two games back – a 28-save shutout of the Dallas Stars (with zero wiggle room, being a 1-0 final), then a superb 34-save win over the first-place Florida Panthers.
Mrazek is obviously this club’s #1, or at least “1A” goaltender. James Reimer has been the second man since his acquisition in 2019, while rookie Nedeljkovic was clearly the third guy out of camp – as seen by his taxi squad status, and the fact that he was waived and unclaimed by all 30 franchises in January.
The thing is, since Mrazek’s injury, Nedeljkovic has clearly been the superior goalie. It seems simple then, roll with the two guys who have performed the best, right?
Ok, I guess not.
So, what do the Hurricanes do from here? They have options, so let’s break down the pros and cons of each.
Now, this does not seem like a particularly likely outcome to me, unless the Hurricanes get a semi-outrageous offer for a 33-year-old backup and pending free agent. But this idea has been floated a few times, so let’s begin by addressing it.
On the one hand, there is a good chance some team(s) out there has an interest in Reimer. Despite his struggles at times this year, he is a solid, veteran backup with nearly 400 games of NHL experience. Good goaltending is hard to find; good, depth goaltending harder yet.
However, consider the position the Hurricanes could potentially be put in if they pull the trigger on a deal for Reimer. What happens if you roll with Mrazek and Nedeljkovic alone and one of them goes down again? Again, one goalie isn’t going to play every game the rest of the season.
In terms of the depth chart, the two goalies playing for Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Chicago are Antoine Bibeau and Beck Warm. Bibeau is an average-ish AHL goalie, and Warm, while promising in his small-sample professional debut, is an undrafted 20-year-old that was playing in the WHL a few months ago. Needless to say, neither of those guys are who you want to be relying on down the stretch.
In summation, Reimer is worth far more as a familiar, veteran insurance policy than he likely would be as a trade chip.
He’s scorching hot, with three shutouts in five (full) games played. He also had a .929 SV%/2.08 GAA in last year’s playoff run. He’s a perfect fit in the locker room and with the fanbase. It’s not happening.
Now, this is also nearly an “lol” as well, but at least hear me out on this one.
Two and a half months ago, no one wanted Nedeljkovic. The Hurricanes waived him, and zero (0) teams put in a claim. He was a free goalie, with a solid draft pedigree, a former AHL Goalie of the Year winner, with an excellent resume in the minors, juniors, and internationally. It didn’t matter.
Then he got hot at the right time; when the Canes needed it most. Even then, however, why did the franchise seem hesitant? The Hurricanes were reluctant to give him consecutive starts, even after multiple off-days and when Reimer was clearly fighting the puck and handing out soft goals far too often.
So, what if the Hurricanes still aren’t sold on Nedeljkovic as a future of this team, and someone makes an offer for him that provides, say, some scoring help?
I would not call this particularly likely either way, as Nedeljkovic has been fantastic in his first extended look in the NHL, providing a big lift for the team. He was developed here for seven years, and all that time put in is finally paying off.
Ned is also the only one of the three goalies discussed here under team control for 2021-22 (as an RFA). But, if the team expects him to fall down to earth, selling when his value has potentially recovered could be a shrewd long-term move.
Reimer the All-Time Backup
Remember back in the day, playing touch football, when the kid with the monster arm played all-time quarterback? How’s this for a new spin?
Mrazek played his first game back from injury on the second leg of a back-to-back, following a Nedeljkovic start the night before. Reimer was on the bench, and Nedeljkovic a healthy scratch.
This brought up the idea: what if Reimer was just the guy on the bench? This might seem kind of silly – and ultimately, how many times do you see the Hurricanes pulling Mrazek or Nedeljkovic? It only happens a handful of times in a season. The workload would be far from substantial.
At the same time, there might be some logical merit to it.
Mrazek and Nedeljkovic are momentum goalies. They feed so much on the crowd, on the team’s energy (and vice versa), and their confidence seems to build as a game goes on and they make bigger saves. They also tend to thrive on the big stage.
Does that seem like the kind of goalie who you really want to bring in cold, in what is likely a blowout or after an injury that has likely given the team a kick in the proverbial gut?
Now, again, it doesn’t happen all that often, a starting goalie getting pulled for the guy on the bench. But Reimer, who has spent a substantial chunk of his career in the #2 role and has plenty of experience coming in relief, could be more suited for the role with his calm, steady demeanor.
This would also provide a little bit of extra rest for the other two, as on days they don’t start they would not have to dress out, take warm-ups, or sit on the bench – they just get a built-in off day.
Reimer seems to be a consummate pro – I do not think he would have any qualms about handling this role, and it seems to be one of the rare options on here that, to some degree, benefits all three guys.
A 3-Goalie Rotation
While we’re talking football, many fans of the sport have likely heard the phrase: “if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have any”. That feels somewhat pertinent to this potential scenario.
The idea behind this saying is that only so many first-team practice reps are available to build chemistry with receivers and stay sharp for Sundays, so the “QB1” title is very important, even during practice time.
Hockey practices don’t really have this issue, to be fair, as both goalies can easily get legitimate workloads. And, in the NHL – especially this truncated season with very few multi-day layoffs between games – teams certainly need two viable, NHL goalies. Even Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t playing every night.
But three? That’s a lot of downtime. How are all three guys going to stay sharp? Especially when two of your guys are playing at a much higher level than the other; what kind of message is that sending, especially on a cup contender?
This can circle back to the original point, too – the Hurricanes are not likely to rotate goalies come playoff time. It is fairly likely that Mrazek will be the guy, as he has been each of the last two seasons. Well, he has missed 31 games. Despite stopping 62-of-64 in his first two games back, his stamina likely is not fully prepared for a playoff grind.
The point being, Mrazek, at a minimum, needs to get half of the remaining games on the Hurricanes schedule. If the past is any indication, it will likely be a couple more than half.
The Hurricanes have 18 games remaining, including three back-to-backs, one end of which will assuredly go to the second goalie. They also have a 4-in-6 stretch at the end of April and the beginning of May, of which two are likely to go to another option.
All told, a fair approximate baseline for Mrazek is about 11 games. That leaves seven games for Nedeljkovic and Reimer to split, give or take… in six weeks. What’s the point? Neither goalie is going to stay sharp or in ready-to-go, game shape with a three or four-game workload over that period of time.
Seven games for one of them, which works out to about game per week, is much more realistic.
Make a Decision on a 2-Goalie Rotation
So, lastly, and potentially most logically, is picking a two-man rotation they are comfortable with. There are many reasons this makes the most sense – workload and merit being the two most prominent.
As previously mentioned, Mrazek is likely to get the lion’s share of starts, so consider him a shoo-in. So how is the other option decided? Let’s start with the stat lines:
James Reimer: 14-4-1, 2.71 GAA, .905 SV%
Alex Nedeljkovic: 8-4-2, 2.12 GAA, .924 SV%
On a basic level, Nedeljkovic has done a better job keeping the puck out of the net, but Reimer has won more games (and yes, goalie wins are about as reliable to draw conclusions from as +/-). But, in Reimer’s case, many of his best saves have come in the biggest moments. He has allowed more soft goals than you would prefer, yes, but more often than not he comes up with the big, tough ones in crunch time.
Rod Brind’Amour is loyal to his veterans – one could likely argue to a fault, at times. Brock McGinn is a really valuable part of the Hurricanes, but he is not the first-line player he has often been deployed at in 2021. And, as previously mentioned, Reimer seemed to get quite the benefit of the doubt after the Mrazek injury despite being substantially outplayed by Nedeljkovic.
It stands to reason, then, that in a potential Stanley Cup run the head coach will want to go with the proven veterans. The safe play, if you will, may have less upside, but also – at least theoretically – lower variance.
There is another factor somewhat interesting to consider, though.
Nedeljkovic and Mrazek are incredibly similar in style. They are far below the standard archetype for modern goalies, and they make up for it by being extremely athletic and aggressive. They love to handle the puck – and do a good job of it – and mostly do an excellent job keeping the puck out of the net. They both also give their head coach a fair amount of headaches, with risky plays occasionally ending up hurting them.
Reimer is nearly the opposite. He has good size, gets by on his angles and veteran savvy, and is mostly going to stay in his crease save for the occasional short loop around his cage to stop the puck in the trapezoid on a dump-in. There is some merit in having a more calming, veteran presence in the net behind the Hurricanes. While they are a young, energetic team that has fed off the energy Mrazek and Nedeljkovic have provided, there are times they need what Reimer provides – the calm, collected, quiet game that can shut off an opposing attack and hold a lead.
Could the Hurricanes be hesitant to get by with two goalies that play such an unpredictable style (remember why this happened)?
Basically, the Canes have:
A. Mrazek-Reimer, a tandem they have won with before and who they are clearly comfortable with, though only one goalie you really want playing, especially in the postseason, or
B. Mrazek-Ned, a tandem of potential stars that both can steal games and play the position at an elite level at times, but who represent the sort of “lower floor” combination as well if both guys go cold and start bleeding goals.
Start to look at it this way, and suddenly it becomes a bit less black and white.
In conclusion, the main goal for the rest of the season between the pipes is getting Mrazek back into the flow, prepared for the grind of playing every other day in a rugged playoff series. He is surely going to play over half of the remaining games, and, obviously, the Hurricanes will want to roll with the option that gives them the best chance to win on the other nights as well. The team is in the hunt for the one seed in the Central Division (not to mention the Presidents’ Trophy), after all.
Nedeljkovic seems like the best choice on paper, but, as discussed here, many factors will play into the decision on what the team needs. And, hell, the most likely outcome is probably some combination of multiple options listed here.
Ultimately, having three goaltenders is far from a bad problem to have – but the Hurricanes must be careful with how they handle the rotation from here on out.
Lest they risk, well, having none.