Soon after the Carolina Hurricanes struck a deal with the New York Rangers to exchange prospects, talk around the league is indicating they may not be finished just yet.
The Hurricanes are currently sitting in the second wild card spot with 72 points, but as the season inches closer to the end, the playoff race only seems to get tighter. With just one weekend remaining before the Feb. 24 trade deadline, the Hurricanes could be one of the more active teams as they seek to lock down their spot in the postseason.
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They certainly have the assets to make a big move – they have six draft picks in the first three rounds in the upcoming 2020 draft, and they also have one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL. Youth is one of the pillars of this team, and although owner Tom Dundon and general manager Don Waddell have plenty of chips to gamble with, the timing may not be right for them to address certain areas the Hurricanes need help in – most notably their goaltending.
Goaltending Has Been Good, But Not Great
Similar to last season, the Hurricanes have been rolling with a 1A/1B goalie system with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer. The Hurricanes have a 5v5 team save percentage (SV%) of .916, which is 21st in the league. However, the tandem has been working well despite their average numbers.
Both goalies have had moments where head coach Rod Brind’Amour ran with their success, and moments where their inconsistencies needed to be worked around, but for the most part, Mrazek and Reimer have been reliable enough to give the Hurricanes a chance to win.
Both goalies are signed through 2020-21 on contracts just north of $3-million. Mrazek has seen more ice time, and has especially been the hot hand of late, but Reimer has earned a better record and a slightly higher SV%.
As the Hurricanes continue to battle for a playoff spot, it’s true the goaltending needs to be consistent in order to give them the best shot at making it. And with the trade deadline around the corner, the Hurricanes have been rumored to be in talks with other teams as they search for more stability between the pipes.
Hurricanes Eyeing the Blackhawks
Goaltending has been the talk of the town ever since the end of the Cam Ward era in Carolina. Mrazek and Reimer aren’t getting any younger, and although 24-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic could be the goalie of the future, he’s still developing his game in the AHL.
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If the Hurricanes make a trade, the Chicago Blackhawks are the obvious potential suitor. They have two goalies who are approaching free agency, as 35-year-old Corey Crawford and 28-year-old Robin Lehner are both in the last year of their multi-million dollar contracts. The Blackhawks and Hurricanes also have a healthy history of striking big deals – namely the Teuvo Teravainen deal that brought the Finnish forward to Carolina, the Calvin de Haan trade made over the summer, and the Scott Darling deal in 2017.
Just because there’s a history there doesn’t mean a deal is likely and it doesn’t mean there’s a fit. The Hurricanes have been under the management of Dundon and Waddell since 2018, and their vision of the team has been consistent since their takeover. That vision – stacking up on picks and prospects and building a healthy, winning environment – has also included staying away from paying a premium for rental players like Lehner.
It makes even less sense for the Blackhawks to move on from Lehner, as he’s been excellent this season, but contract negotiations between him and the Blackhawks haven’t seemed to progress at all. Losing him to free agency this summer would be a humongous blow. If the Blackhawks and Lehner can break through on contract talks, he may not get traded at all. But you have to think at least one of Lehner or Crawford will be gone before next season – and the Hurricanes remain one of the top teams in discussion.
Goalie Market is Drying Up
Pittsburgh Penguins’ third-stringer Casey DeSmith was rumored to be available earlier in the season, though general manager Jim Rutherford has recently stated he doesn’t intend on moving any of his three goalies before the deadline.
With the dynamite play of pending restricted free agent (RFA) Tristan Jarry this season, he’s up for a big, new contract over the summer. Meanwhile, Matt Murray, another RFA-to-be for the Penguins, has been relatively inconsistent and has been surpassed in net by Jarry. Rutherford says he’s not shopping his goalies, but also stated DeSmith would be back in the NHL next season.
That could mean Rutherford wants to see how Jarry performs under playoff pressure, which could help him sort out the three-goalie conundrum during the summer. If the Hurricanes are interested in dealing with the Penguins, the time to inquire will be early in the offseason.
Over in the Big Apple, the Rangers also have three goalies with NHL starter potential in Henrik Lundqvist, Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. Shesterkin has been labeled the goalie of the future, and at 24 years old, is already a stud. They’re not moving him. That leaves the pending RFA Georgiev, who has also been impressive as a 24-year-old, and 37-year-old Lundqvist, who has a massive $8.5 million cap hit for this season and next on top of a no-movement clause.
Georgiev has been pursued by several NHL teams, but as Lundqvist has been slowly phased out of the picture, the likelihood of a deadline goalie trade by the Rangers is far less probable than the shocking reality of a Lundqvist summer buyout.
The fact is, the goalie market has dried up considerably the past few months, and if the Hurricanes really want to improve that area via trade, now is not the right time. Acquiring an over-35 goalie like Lundqvist or Crawford will cost the price of the future for Carolina, and that would go against everything Dundon and Waddell have fought to create.
Hurricanes Must Use the Offseason to Solidify Goaltending
The Hurricanes will have a third goalie join the party after this season as Nedeljkovic looks to finally make his ascension.
The American-born goaltender has been biding his time with the Hurricanes organization since he was drafted 37th-overall in 2014. He’s only suited up for two NHL games, but has been putting in tons of work with the Charlotte Checkers the past four years. If he’s not one of the two goalies for the Hurricanes on opening night of the 2020-21 season, they’re making a mistake. That means one of Mrazek or Reimer will soon be expendable, as both will be in the last year of their contracts.
It would be more logical to keep Mrazek and find a suitor for Reimer, as Mrazek is the younger of the two goalies, has more starter potential, and has been with the organization longer. A tandem of Mrazek and Nedeljkovic could be the game plan for the Hurricanes next season if they look to tinker their goaltending from within.
Reimer, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in the trade that marked the end of Scott Darling’s tenure in Carolina, has a fatter cap hit than what you’d want in a backup goalie at $3.4 million, which may make him tricky to move. However, there are several rebuilding teams who could be looking for a solid goalie to fill the void for a season, and Reimer could be their man.
The Ottawa Senators will have loads of cap room with 38-year-old starter Craig Anderson’s contract expiring at the end of this season, and depending on how things play out in Chicago, the Blackhawks may also be looking for a successor in net.
The Detroit Red Wings are also in the final year of 35-year-old Jimmy Howard’s contract. Reimer and Jonathan Bernier manned the pipes for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2013 to 2016 – maybe there’s a reunion in the works there?
Trading Reimer to a rebuilding team may be difficult to make beneficial for both sides, as the Hurricanes and a potential buyer would be looking to collect future assets, but it would be a good move for the Hurricanes to free up their own cap room, which they eventually need to re-sign players like Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton in 2021.
Nedeljkovic Season is Coming in 2020-21
Barring a surprise trade, the 2020-21 campaign should be the first time Nedeljkovic gets regular NHL minutes. The Hurricanes need to see what he’s made of before they can decide on a long-term solution for their goaltending.
Nedeljkovic has had plenty of success with the Checkers in the AHL as a young goaltender – he was awarded the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s best goaltender in 2018-19, a year in which he was named to the first All-Star team and backstopped the Checkers to their first Calder Cup championship.
The Checkers aren’t as strong of a team this season than they were last year, but Nedeljkovic has still put up solid numbers, going 15-9-2 with a .905 SV%, 2.53 goals-against average (GAA), and four shutouts. He was named to the AHL 2020 All-Star Classic, which he attended in January along with teammate Jake Bean and new Hurricanes acquisition Joey Keane.
Nedeljkovic has reached the stage in his development where he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL, and to account for that, one of the two Hurricanes starters will have to go. But that’s a problem for Hurricanes brass down the road. For now, it’s best to stay the course while they continue the push for the 2020 playoffs. Sacrificing the future in a hasty trade for a goalie – who may not even want to re-sign in Carolina – is only going to add to the disarray.
Of course, the Hurricanes could use help now. They’re sandwiched in the toughest division in the NHL with slightly above-average goaltending and a defense core that’s desperately missing Dougie Hamilton. But upper management has been smart in handling its youthful roster so that the Hurricanes may compete at the top level for not just today, but many years to come.