2021 is nearly upon us, and with that, a new NHL season, hopefully.
After much speculation about what the Carolina Hurricanes would do with their goaltending situation heading into free agency, the answer was simple: Nothing. General manager Don Waddell opted to stick with his two goaltenders, Petr Mrázek and James Reimer (and any random Zamboni drivers when needed), for the new season as a 1A-1B tandem like they were in 2019-20.
However, that choice seems like a temporary solution. With Mrázek and Reimer’s contracts expiring at the end of next season, the front office will need to find a long-term solution in nets. With limited time, the 2020-21 season will be pivotal in evaluating what the team’s options are and what is best for their future.
In 2019-20, Carolina trotted out a pair of goaltenders in lieu of a premier starter who could dominate the schedule. Reimer and Mrázek were serviceable, splitting time during the shortened regular season and helping the team sweep the New York Rangers in the playoff bubble’s qualifying round.
But their lackluster numbers and inconsistency didn’t inspire much confidence for the future. Both goalies posted save percentages under .915 in the regular season, and when the Hurricanes defense broke down in the next round against the Boston Bruins — allowing 33 shots or more in all but one game — neither Reimer nor Mrázek was able to save the season.
Both Mrázek, 28, and Reimer, 32, also appear to have reached the apex of their abilities. While the rest of Carolina’s young roster continues to improve over time, goaltending does not have anywhere to go but down with the current options.
The new season is a big one for both goalies. Neither one has distinguished himself as the starter of the future, but the Hurricanes’ inability to sign anyone in free agency has given Reimer and Mrázek another opportunity to prove they’re the answer.
Moves to Make
Though the front office decided to stay the course this offseason, Mrázek and Reimer are still not the only two options the Hurricanes have in net for 2020-21. Should neither show enough improvement, management could delve into the buffet of underutilized talent at the trade deadline. Waddell has shown that he’s not afraid to shake things up mid-season, and he has plenty of assets on expiring contracts to exchange for a goalie who could prove to be more useful. Possible candidates could include Marc-Andre Fleury or Tuukka Rask.
Fleury had competition last season, with Robin Lehner fighting for the starting spot for the Vegas Golden Knights. Fleury posted a substandard .905 save percentage in the regular season, his lowest in 10 years, and lost the starting job by the playoffs. He was expected to be traded during the offseason after Lehner was re-signed for five years at $25 million, but he remains on the team for now. If Fleury is wasting away on the bench this season, the price could be cheap should Carolina look to trade for him.
Rask is another option Waddell may keep an eye on in the 2020-21 season. The longtime Bruins goaltender is entering the final season of his 8-year extension. The 33-year-old has been a fixture in the Bruins’ net for over a decade, but the organization may take the opportunity to get younger between the pipes with some solid depth behind him. The price for Rask will be much steeper than Fleury, and he would be a rental, but if the Hurricanes are looking for the missing piece for that final push to the playoffs, he might be worth the risk.
The Hurricanes could also look at veterans like Antti Raanta (Arizona Coyotes) or Henrik Lundqvist (Washington Capitals), but neither inspires much more confidence than Mrázek or Reimer due to their age or inconsistency. For now, Waddell seems content to see the season play out and reevaluate each of them at a later date, but the time for a decision is coming.
Call to the Farm
A deadline deal could add valuable experience and a veteran presence in the locker room, but the likely options are also all on the wrong side of 30 and nearing the end of their careers. The Hurricanes should consider dipping into their farm system to find a player who has the potential to become the long-term solution.
Alex Nedeljkovic headlines Carolina’s goaltending prospects. The 24-year-old has played in just six NHL games in his career but still possesses solid professional experience in the ECHL and AHL. The team’s 2014 second-round draft pick has been groomed to be a future starter but has had to dwell in the minors while he awaits his turn.
Both goalies ahead of him could walk in free agency, or be selected in the upcoming 2021 Expansion Draft, so Nedeljkovic could finally be given his shot if neither Mrázek nor Reimer show enough to warrant re-signing.
The Hurricanes also have other prospects waiting in the wings, like 2019 second-round pick Pyotr Kochetkov. The 21-year-old goaltender has looked impressive in Russia and at the 2019 World Junior Championship, but he remains unsigned by the team. It’s unlikely Kochetkov or another unforeseen prospect shoots up the ranks and into the starting spot by next year, but it is something to keep an eye on while their season plays out.
Waddell and the Hurricanes still have a season to decide what to do, but they can’t dodge the issue forever, and the decision could be the difference between a good team and a champion.
Covering the Hurricanes for THW. University of Florida alum. Former sportswriter with The Alligator, ESPN Gainesville and Drafttek.