It wouldn’t be a season of Carolina Hurricanes hockey without an uncertain goaltending situation, would it?
During the offseason, Carolina let former starting goalie Cam Ward walk in free agency, who later signed to be the backup with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hurricanes were fully committed to give Scott Darling the starting job, and a seemingly successful summer of workouts which even earned Darling a stint with Team USA all set up for a bounce back season between the pipes. Carolina signed former Red Wings and Flyers goalie Petr Mrazek to a one year “prove it” deal, and he was set to be the backup.
Before the regular season got underway, Darling suffered a lower-body injury, which pushed back his season debut all the way to October 30th. Due to Darling’s injury, the Canes were in need for a temporary backup goaltender, and they found that on the waiver wire when they claimed former Toronto goaltender Curtis McElhinney.
The thought was that McElhinney would be a temporary backup goaltender until Darling returned, and after that we could see McElhinney back on waivers. But, due to McElhinney’s strong play, he has forced the Hurricanes to keep him on the roster and keeps earning starts. Overall, McElhinney has started seven games, with Darling earning six starts and now injured Petr Mrazek getting eight starts.
Curtis McElhinney’s stellar play between the pipes has almost assured his spot on the roster for the rest of the season. He is coming off of two outstanding games against the New Jersey Devils and the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he has been the most consistent goalie out of the three on the Canes’ roster as of late.
In his seven starts, McElhinney has posted save percentages of .969, .880, .826, .864, .842, .971, and .938. Those numbers don’t jump out as a consistent goaltender, but McElhinney is winning games. He is currently 5-2-0. McElhinney plays better when he faces more shots. In his four sub .900 save percentage games, he didn’t face more than 25 shots in those four games. In his three stellar performances, McElhinney faced 30+ shots.
As a backup goaltender, it’s tough to come in and not play consistently, especially on a brand-new team. When you throw in a third goaltender and are balancing practice time and starts between three goalies as opposed to two, it’s easy to lose rhythm. With Mrazek banged up, McElhinney has gotten a chance to get consistent practice time and to get a couple of starts, and he hasn’t disappointed. After his two recent games, it’s fair to say that, at least for now, McElhinney has all but locked up a spot on the roster with the Hurricanes. Now, the only question is, if the Hurricanes decide to carry two goalies on the roster, which they inevitably will, who is the odd man out?
Petr Mrazek has had mixed success so far in his Hurricanes career. Mrazek plays a very aggressive style of hockey, and that has its benefits and its downfalls. Mrazek isn’t shy to challenge a puck, and he comes up with a few dazzling saves by doing so. The only problem is that more often than not, Mrazek has been caught out of position due to his aggressive style of play, and it has given the opposing team a goal.
In his eight starts this season, Mrazek has an overall save percentage of just .880, which doesn’t look that good. But that number has a lot to due with the Hurricanes’ style of play. The Hurricanes lead the NHL in shots per game, and they also lead in the NHL by allowing the fewest shots per game. Canes’ goalies don’t typically see a lot of consistent action throughout a game, which can really hurt a goaltender’s focus. Mrazek is 3-3-2 on the season, and he has played well enough to have a record containing at least two or three more wins than he currently has. In both games against the Islanders this season, Mrazek has allowed just two goals. Both games ended with a 2-1 Islanders win. Mrazek also allowed just two goals against Winnipeg, but they added an empty netter for a 3-1 win.
While Mrazek’s statistics show that he is an average goaltender at best, I would argue that Mrazek has been far better than the numbers show. He could very easily be 6-1-1 if he got more goal support in those three games mentioned above.
Scott Darling has been okay since returning to the Hurricanes. He is 2-3-1 with a .903 save percentage so far. Darling had strong games against Boston and Chicago (twice), but he has also had very bad games mixed in as well.
If he can get consistent starts, I believe that Darling is confident in himself as a starting goalie. He had a strong offseason and already looks better than he did a season ago. But, even if Darling performs well, will he be worth the big four-year contract worth $16 million that he signed two offseasons ago?
Ideally, Darling finds his groove as a starter and can prove that he is worth the money that the Hurricanes have committed to him. But, if he continues to be average at best, he might lose out on that chance.
Curtis McElhinney has proven that he is an excellent backup goaltender in the NHL. But it’s no secret that he is older and probably wouldn’t have as much success if he is being used as a starting goaltender. That means that the Hurricanes need one of Darling or Mrazek to step up and prove that they can be a solid starting goaltender.
I would say that Darling has the best shot at proving he is capable of being a starter. A lot of that is due to his contract, though. That would be a lot of money to try and get off the books should they try to move him. Mrazek’s cheap one-year deal would be a lot easier to move in a potential deal, especially with goaltending injuries going around the NHL.
It has been nice seeing McElhinney succeed as he has in his last two starts, but it’s time for a true starting goaltender to step up. Whether it is Darling or Mrazek, someone needs to step up and take control of the crease. For now, all three goalies will lose time in practice. One of the three will have to watch the game from the press box as opposed to watching from the bench. That takes a toll on a goaltender, so hopefully, someone steps up and makes the Hurricanes’ decision that much easier.