With Alex Nedeljkovic having eyes on a full-time NHL spot with the Carolina Hurricanes, could we see another Canes prospect take over the starting reigns in Charlotte next year?
If Alex Nedeljkovic finally graduates to a full-time NHL role with the Carolina Hurricanes next season the Charlotte Checkers will find themselves in need of a new number one netminder. Having been a key member of the teams in Charlotte the past few seasons, both a huge void and opportunity will be created for other Canes’ goaltending prospects to step up and take the reins.
Drafted back in 2014, Nedeljkovic enters the second year of a two year contract extension signed this past offseason. Unlike this year, where he was waiver exempt, next season he will need to clear waivers before the Hurricanes could assign him to the Checkers.
When you consider this and that fact that he’s not only on a one way deal with nothing left to prove in the AHL, it seems likely that there will be someone new in the starter’s crease.
The first of two prospects playing in Europe, Eetu Mäkiniemi appears to be trending in the right direction. A former fourth-round pick, the 20-year-old netminder would need to sign an entry-level deal to be eligible to play for the Checkers this fall.
Winning the award for best goaltender in Finland’s AHL equivalent this season, Mäkiniemi was given the chance to back up Duck’s prospect Lukas Dostal in the Finnish Elite League for Ilves. In seven appearances, Eetu posted a GAA of 1.53 and a save percentage of .936.
With Dostal currently expected to remain on the Ilves roster, Mäkiniemi is not likely to start more than 15 or so game next season and the Canes may decide it’s best to bring Mäkiniemi over to North America. However, should Dostal join the Ducks, could an opportunity to be a starter in Finland’s top hockey league may be best for his development?
Either way, even if he signs and plays a few games in Charlotte, he can always be assigned back to Finland at any point if the Canes deem he’s not yet ready.
Thought to be the goalie of the future by many, Pyotr Kochetkov could be the best option for the organization to bring over and have him play a handful of games in the AHL.
Turning 21 this June, he is entering the prime years for his development, and if he is the guy going forward for the Canes, they may want to have some more control over his playing time rather than have him bounce around team to team in Russia.
Spending time in the VHL, MHL, and KHL this season, he hasn’t been given the chance yet to settle in with a single team or have a series of consecutive starts. With a GAA of 2.62 and a save percentage of .887 in six games with SKA St. Petersburg and a GAA of 3.09 and a save percentage of .917 in eight games with Vityaz Podolsk, he’s been decent in his 14 KHL appearances this season.
However, it is hard for young players to get playing time in Russia’s top league, especially if they’re an inexperienced goalie like Pyotr.
Expected to be Vityaz Podolsk backup next season, with Ilya Yezhov their clear number one, Kochetkov has one more year left on his current KHL contract. He could wait to come over to North America next offseason after his deal expires but to be eligible to play in the AHL he too would need to sign an entry-level deal.
Drafted just a year after Nedeljkovic, Callum Booth has been bounced around a fair bit already in his young career. Splitting time in the ECHL with the Atlanta Gladiators and Greenville Swamp Rabbits, and a single appearance with the Checkers this season, Booth has been limited to only 13 games this season.
It’s not that difficult to tell that the front office isn’t impressed with what they’ve seen from him. As a pending RFA, he’ll likely join the long list of former Ron Francis picks no longer with the organization making him an unlikely candidate.
More from Cardiac Cane
Unlike Booth, Jeremy Helvig has been given a chance to play and prove himself in the ECHL. Appearing in 69 games for the Swamp Rabbits over the past two seasons, Helvig has had an up and down start to his professional career.
While his .910 save percentage is ok, there’s been some off ice issues recently. Currently, under investigation for a potential battery situation, it is possible that he won’t be an option going forward even though he’s still under contract for another year. If he’s found innocent, however, he probably has the inside track out of any of the names here.
There are also two guys playing in the NCAA that, although extremely unlikely, could be an option. Playing for the University of Minnesota, Jack LaFontaine has done a good job of putting himself back on the map. Improving with each and every season, he’s more than likely going to return for his senior year before the Canes make a decision on the former third rounder’s future.
The last of the Carolina Hurricanes goaltending prospects, Jake Kucharski, is playing at Providence College. Although yet to make an appearance in the NCAA yet, Jake is going to plenty of time to prove he’s worth an entry-level deal over the next three seasons. Only time will tell here, but it’s safe to say that he won’t be the guy for the Checkers this upcoming year.
At the end of the day, it is highly possible that Nedeljkovic, depending on his performance in training camp, could clear waivers and be assigned to Charlotte if he fails to make Carolina’s roster this fall. We saw Anton Forsberg spend a vast majority of the season with the Checkers even though he was on a one-way deal this year, and there’s no reason the same can’t be said for Ned.
Depending on what happens this offseason, he will be competing with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer yet again and could find himself the odd man out. Should he no longer be an option for Charlotte, the organization has a few solid options within the system that would need to be signed to be eligible to play.
It may be best for guys like Mäkiniemi and Kochetkov to come over to North America and get adjusted to the smaller ice surface and style of play if the Hurricanes brass sees them as important pieces going forward. In the AHL the Canes would get a chance to have a say on how many starts these players get and will have better control over their development.
Of course, they could always look elsewhere and sign someone to a two way/AHL deal to man the starter’s crease for the time being and wait to bring over one of these top prospects next offseason. Either way, it is highly possible that there will be a new number one down in Charlotte next season.
Question for CC Readers: Who do you think is the best bet to be the starting goaltender for the Charlotte Checkers next season?