Carolina Hurricanes: Who will keep net next year?

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 15: Carolina Hurricanes Goalie Petr Mrazek (34) in action prior to the National Hockey League game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers on January 15, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 15: Carolina Hurricanes Goalie Petr Mrazek (34) in action prior to the National Hockey League game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers on January 15, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. (Photo by Joshua Sarner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Carolina Hurricanes are experiencing something highly unusual, something not seen in Raleigh for many years: good goaltending. But who will keep net for the Canes next season, with both current goalies impending UFAs?

This is a position that very few Carolina Hurricanes fans could have expected at the beginning of the season. Scott Darling was coming off a bad first season in Raleigh, and was still the team’s anointed starter; Petr Mrazek came in as his backup on a one-year, $1.5m show-me deal. We then saw the Canes claim Curtis McElhinney off waivers, and a goaltending circus then ensued.

Don Waddell put a stop to that when he placed Scott Darling on waivers at the end of November; since then, the tandem of Mrazek and McElhinney has vaulted the Carolina Hurricanes into playoff conversation with a series of impressive performances. Even in games where their save percentages have suffered, there have been very few bad games from either goaltender over the last two months.

The only goaltenders under contract after this season are Scott Darling, Jeremy Helvig and Callum Booth; none of the three will surely be considered for the Canes’ crease. Mrazek and McElhinney are impending UFAs, and have even been linked with a rental trade as the NHL trade deadline approaches. The team’s other goaltender, Alex Nedeljkovic, becomes an RFA this summer.

So who will keep net for the Carolina Hurricanes next season?

To keep, or not to keep

The Carolina Hurricanes starters gig is becoming Petr Mrazek’s more and more as the season progresses. With each passing game, confidence in Mrazek grows amongst both fans and players alike, and his performances – despite not having the numbers of his team mate – are just as impressive as Curtis McElhinney’s. Last night’s 5-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights showed why the Canes should be looking to lock down Mrazek’s future, before his numbers start to improve and the rest of the league takes notice.

Curtis McElhinney found a vital stretch of good form for the Canes earlier in the season, keeping them on the edges of the playoff hunt with some game-stealing performances. However, before this season he was best known as a 35 year-old journeyman backup, and he continues to struggle to shake off some minor niggles that have forced the Canes into calling up both Scott Darling and Alex Nedeljkovic over the last two months. We will be forever grateful for his unexpected and crucial contributions to our season, but Mrazek is the Canes’ clear number one goalie now and, through no fault of McElhinney’s own, he now owns the backup role once again.

Down on the farm

Alex Nedeljkovic made a dream start to his full NHL career, earning the start on the road in Vancouver before the All-Star Game break and making 24 saves to lead the Carolina Hurricanes to a 5-2 win. While it is early days for the 23 year-old, he has long been touted as the future starter for the franchise, and an extension is a foregone conclusion.

Both Helvig and Booth will require more time in the AHL before determining their futures. Booth has unquestionable talent, and looks a surefire bet to see some NHL action in the coming years, but his likely career trajectory sees him anointed as the starting netminder for the Charlotte Checkers for a couple of years. Helvig had solid numbers in the OHL but has only played one AHL game, and so his future would appear to be with the Checkers for the foreseeable future as well.

Needless to say, Scott Darling’s time with the franchise has come to an end. We fully expect owner Tom Dundon to sanction a buyout of Darling’s contract, which would free up $2.9m of cap space next year and $1.8m in 2020/21. A buyout would penalise the Canes to the tune of $1.2m in 2021/22 and 2022/23, but by then Alex Semin’s $2.333m annual buyout penalty would be off the books and so the Canes would still be better off by $1.1m in each of those seasons. Boy, can hindsight can be a painful ally – and a costly one for Dundon.

The outside options

Unusually, there are several potential number one goalies hitting the market this summer. Top of that list is Russian enigma Sergei Bobrovsky, who appears determined to test the waters of free agency this summer and depart the Columbus Blue Jackets. Bobrovsky will be 30 years old by the start of next season, and will surely be looking for a raise against his already-considerable $7.425m AAV. On previous form, he’d be well worth that and more – but this season, his save percentage is a near-career-low .901%, and his GAA is north of 3. Teams should be wary of committing term and $8m+ a year to a goalie who may have begun a slow decline.

Other options include Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov, who also appears destined for the free agent market and may see a similar deal to his current 5-year, $5.9m AAV deal; Cam Talbot of the Edmonton Oilers, who will be jettisoned by a franchise desperate for change and who will re-invest Talbot’s $4.17m AAV elsewhere; and surprise Vezina (and possible Masterton) candidate Robin Lehner of the upstart New York Islanders, sporting a snazzy .931% save percentage and a plucky 2.02 GAA. He’s unlikely to reach free agency but if he did, he’ll be one of this summer’s biggest winners.

Of those options, the Carolina Hurricanes may be best-placed offering a 5-year, $6m contract in the direction of Semyon Varlamov. But would committing so much term and dollar to another goalie, so soon after Scott Darling, appeal to Canes fans?

Next. Which Canes are nearing milestones?. dark

The likeliest outcome is that Don Waddell hands Petr Mrazek a contract extension to make him the unquestioned number one goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes. After his showing in Vancouver before the All-Star Game break, Alex Nedljkovic looks primed for the backup gig; Curtis McElhinney has been an incredible waiver wire pickup, but the Canes need to look to the long-term. A pairing of Mrazek-Nedeljkovic would do just fine and would allow funds to be spent elsewhere on the team.