“If they can just get league average goaltending, how good can this team be?”
It was a sentiment that followed the Carolina Hurricanes for years, even before players like Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov turned them into a fun, fast, explosive team. And when a young Ohio native, a former second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, with junior, international, and AHL pedigree, finally broke through with a Calder Trophy finalist rookie season, the team’s fans rejoiced. They finally had their answer, the goalie who would hold things down between the pipes for a decade of a contention window that was just beginning to open — or, at least, so they thought.
On Thursday, the Hurricanes announced the trade of goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who led the NHL in save percentage (SV%) and goals-against average (GAA) in 2020-21, to the Detroit Red Wings. There had been rumblings in the past that the team did not truly buy into his performance, despite earning the starting job in the postseason over veteran Petr Mrazek. In return, the Hurricanes received negotiating rights to unrestricted free agent Jonathan Bernier, as well as the 94th overall pick (third round) in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. And just like that, the Hurricanes fanbase was absolutely ablaze.
There are many layers to unpack from this, with the first being the salary cap implications. The Hurricanes supposedly still had a large gap with Nedeljkovic’s camp, with EJ Hradek reporting the Hurricanes offered a measly $1.5 million, while Nedeljkovic’s ask was a quite reasonable $3.5 million. Nedeljkovic then signed a two-year, $6 million extension with Detroit, an annual average value (AAV) of $3 million. That’s a massive steal if Nedeljkovic performs anywhere near his 2020-21 level. Alas, the Hurricanes wanted him to be the backup with a corresponding salary; Nedeljkovic, understandably, saw himself a starter and wanted to be paid as such.
A quick look at the Hurricanes’ contracts page suggests that their desire to save some money makes sense, at the very least until you dig a little deeper. But, that’s why we’re here; to look beyond the initial news and figure out why the Hurricanes made this move, what the consequences will be, and where they may try to go from here. The off-season is still extremely young, and things can obviously change in a real hurry. But, as things stand now, and with so many things still up in the area, it seems a mildly unsettling start for Carolina on the surface.
The Hurricanes have just under $30 million in cap space, which seems like a decent amount. However, when you look at the current batch of free agents, you realize that number is going to dwindle in a real hurry. First and foremost, rising superstar Andrei Svechnikov is a restricted free agent (RFA) and one who reportedly turned down an eight-year deal in the $7.5 million range. Perhaps fortunately for the Hurricanes (in this aspect, anyway), he struggled for long stretches of his third season, so perhaps you can convince him to sign a bridge deal around that figure.
Next, Dougie Hamilton is unrestricted (UFA), and it remains anyone’s guess as to how that situation will shake out. Personally, I don’t see Hamilton back in Carolina at this point. As well as Hamilton has fit in Raleigh, and with how he doesn’t seem like the type of player to chase money over all else, the Hurricanes haven’t given a ton of optimism when it comes to negotiations in the Waddell/Dundon era. Even when the team gets deals done to keep their guys, it seems like there are more questions and angst than there should be.
However, even if they don’t re-sign Dougie, they’re going to have to pay some defenseman. Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei, and Jake Gardiner are the only defensemen under contract for 2021-22. Jake Bean is also a restricted free agent, but reports are that the Hurricanes are looking to move him, too. So bank on the Hurricanes looking for a veteran that can play in the top four (Ryan Suter, maybe?) as well as another depth defenseman, even if they think a young player like Max Lajoie, Jesper Sellgren, or Joey Keane can potentially fill a bottom-pairing slot.
The Hurricanes’ depth forwards are also lacking. This is an area the team could probably use an upgrade, as their lack of secondary scoring came back to haunt them in the second round of the playoffs against Tampa Bay. I’ve talked about this part at length in a previous post, so I won’t repeat myself too much here. With Warren Foegele (RFA) and Brock McGinn (UFA) unsigned, and Morgan Geekie the Seattle Kraken’s pick from the Hurricanes, the bottom six is going to look much, much different in 2021-22. The Hurricanes basically still have to fill at least half of that bottom six out, even if you were to pencil in rookie Jack Drury into a role on the NHL roster (totally plausible, in my opinion – kid’s good).
So, sure, the Hurricanes are in a relatively tight spot. That $29.4 million in cap space is going to shrink quickly. But oh, by the way, they now have zero NHL goalies under contract. They acquired Bernier, who played pretty well last year behind an abysmal Detroit roster. He’s better suited as a backup, and the Hurricanes could do worse for that particular role. But, can you guess what his salary was last year? Three million dollars. Again, the same amount the 25-year-old Calder Trophy finalist just signed for in Detroit.
If management is steadfast in its stance that Nedeljkovic isn’t the answer, that’s fine to pass on paying him the money — even though the upside of having a good, young goalie under contract at an AAV that’s quite low for a starter seems to outweigh the risk. But, what goalie that’s definitively going to be an upgrade over Nedeljkovic isn’t going to be significantly more costly?
One of the ways this could make sense is if the Hurricanes can identify a young or buy-low candidate that they believe will break out or bounce back behind what could be an elite defense again (depending on how they round it out, but Slavin, Skjei, and Pesce are a pretty good starting point), and the savings then enable them to make a competitive offer to, say, Gabriel Landeskog. A pickup like that and the Nedeljkovic deal will be forgiven in relatively short order.
But, if you get stuck and have to pay a somewhat hefty salary for your goalie(s), then you may not be able to upgrade the roster, or at least adequately fill out their depth elsewhere. That’s where this deal could really come back to haunt the team. The Hurricanes seemed to be in a good position to re-sign Nedeljkovic, hope he can re-create his 2020-21 season while on a bridge deal, and use the summer to strengthen the forward ranks and blue line with the money saved from Mrazek and James Reimer’s combined $6.5 million coming off the books. Even if they re-signed Mrazek to the same contract and went forward with the same tandem they had in the postseason, their salary committed to the position would be lower than opening night last year when Reimer’s $3.4 million cap hit was the highest goalie contract the Hurricanes had.
Carolina has many options, and it’ll be fascinating to see whatever plan they are enacting fall into place. Even after Svechnikov and Hamilton (or a comparable, puck-moving defenseman) put pen to paper, the team ought to be able to make a run at two goalies and a decent forward, too. I don’t buy the “Carolina/Tom Dundon is cheap” chatter that seems to come up every summer. Let’s not forget this is the same front office that set $6 million on fire to buy a first-round draft pick and that the team has effectively spent to the cap ever since the regime took over. We’re at the very, very beginning of what’s sure to be an interesting summer, so whether you like the decision to move on from Nedeljkovic or not, do yourself a favor and give it some time to see how things shake out before dusting off the pitchforks. But, conversely, this is really the biggest concern, that the Hurricanes are leaving a lot of holes on the roster to fill in a span of a few short months.
Selling High, and Now What?
So, again, the Hurricanes are obviously proclaiming that Nedeljkovic isn’t the answer for them in goal. General manager Don Waddell said as much in an interview with Sara Civian after the deal was announced on Thursday, stating that the team sees itself as a Stanley Cup contender and a better fit for them right now would be with a veteran as their starting goalie (from “‘We aren’t trying to save money’: Why the Hurricanes traded Alex Nedeljkovic and what their new plan is in net”, The Athletic, 7/22/21). This seems to suggest they expect this season to be a flash in the pan. It’s understandable; Nedeljkovic had been in the Carolina system for seven years, and the team was hesitant to ever give him starts until they literally had no other options to do so. He was waived — and unclaimed, lest we forget — in January. In that sense, maybe the Hurricanes should be happy to get a third-rounder and Bernier.
His minors career was largely shaky. He led the Charlotte Checkers to a Calder Cup and won the American Hockey League’s Goalie of the Year Award in 2018-19, but his save percentage (SV%) was just a middling .916. In the other four years, he never posted a SV% over .906. Furthermore, his results in his NHL games before this past season were middling, at best. Nobody has gotten as familiar with him, known his strengths and weaknesses, truly read who he is as a person, more than the Hurricanes. And still, they were reluctant to ever give him the crease and found it necessary to move on from him in what feels like Waddell and Dundon’s biggest off-season thus far in their tenures.
We’ll see how the move pays off over the next couple of years. Perhaps they’re right, and Nedeljkovic never comes close to the 32-game sample he provided during the 2020-21 regular season and playoffs. But, if they’re wrong, and the franchise also fails to identify and acquire a suitable replacement, the front office will have dropped the ball during a critical portion of the franchise’s timeline. Over the next three years, Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Martin Necas, Nino Niederreiter, and Vincent Trocheck will all be up for free agency, in addition to the players mentioned in the previous section. It’s nearly impossible to foresee the team re-signing all of those players, so the optimal window to really establish yourself as a contender — and possible free-agent destination — is, well, right now.
The current free agent crop for goaltenders isn’t very good. Phillipp Grubauer is the best option, but he seems most likely to re-sign in Colorado. Beyond him, 36-year-old Jaroslav Halak and two early-30s veterans in Antti Ranta and Frederik Andersen are the best options on the market. Are any of those guys upgrades over Nedeljkovic? I doubt it. And what about Mrazek or even Reimer? Mrazek was very good in his time here, seemed to fit in very well with the team, and for the most part showed up in the playoffs. At the same time, that would be a hard sell, considering they just gave up on the guy that displaced his starting job when the games mattered most. No matter what, Mrazek will always be a part of one of the best moments in the franchise’s history, though:
Maybe they even have some calls in to take a run at a high-end starter like John Gibson of the Anaheim Ducks or Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes, who both realistically seem available with their teams stuck in rebuilds, neither of which look to have an end in sight or at least one that coincides with those goalies’ primes. Gibson’s contract carries a $6.4 million cap hit through 2026-27, but considering it’ll be up at age 34, he should still be effective even at the end of the deal. Meanwhile, Kuemper is owed just $4.5 million and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. That’s a fantastic figure for one of the better starting goalies in the league, but if you want to keep him beyond that, that cap hit is sure to raise moving forward. Neither of those trades feels likely to be cheap in terms of prospect capital, but the Hurricanes do have the depth in the pipeline to be able to pull it off.
It’s hard to say with conviction whether this move was a good one or not at this stage of the off-season. So many things can, and will, happen over the next week or two, and if this move is a pretense for the Hurricanes to grab a “big fish,” it’ll be hard to complain too much. It is natural for some level of pain as a fan of the team and the player. Everyone seemed to grow to love Nedeljkovic over the course of the season. From the incredible lift he provided the team, when both goalies were lost to injury, to the dazzling array of acrobatic saves and beautiful passes from the goalie position, he was simply a joy to watch. And this isn’t a time the Hurricanes can afford to take a step back. It’s hard to imagine they would make a move such as this one without at least a preliminary discussion that will bring another one, and a good one, at that, to town.
On the flip side, Detroit is building a nice nucleus of talent under franchise legend Steve Yzerman. The GM has proven what he can do as a roster constructor in his time in Tampa Bay, and with shrewd additions of players like Robby Fabbri and Jakub Vrana in his short time in Hockeytown, it’s hard to bet against him turning that franchise around in relatively short order. But he is betting on a goalie with 29 career regular-season games here, which came behind a very good defense, and let’s keep in mind that Slavin and Pesce are not part of the package. Not to diminish what Nedeljkovic did in his time in Carolina, but Detroit fans would be best served to temper their expectations a tad, as well. Saying Nedeljkovic is a surefire, number one starter seems like a stretch at this point.
With the NHL Entry Draft set to get underway in a matter of hours, and free agency opening less than a week after, this is only the beginning in what should be a fascinating week; at least, hopefully, much more fascinating than the colossal dud that was the Seattle Expansion Draft, anyway. We should start to get a better idea of what the Hurricanes had in mind behind this deal and see if the savings allowed them to bring in more talent elsewhere, as the team continues to try to make the jump to the NHL’s elite.
Tom Dundon’s Hurricanes have steadily improved since he purchased the franchise, and until he gives you a reason to believe otherwise, have some faith in the man. And with the fun portion of the NHL offseason having only just begun, we should probably try to withhold judgment until we get just a little closer to October.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!