Last season felt like a collective sigh of relief when it came to goaltending. Mrazek and Mcelhinney combined to give the Hurricanes league average goaltending, the duo backstopping the team to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. That wasn’t expected to be the tandem going into the season however, a revitalized Scott Darling and take a chance on me Petr Mrazek were supposed to mind the net this season. A preseason leg injury to Darling changed those plans. Mcelhinney was brought in off waivers and the season underway. The rest is history. Mcelhinney performed incredibly well and Mrazek played like the promising goaltender that impressed in the World Juniors. Guided by Mike Bales, it felt like all the Canes had to do was bring back one or both of their netminders and they would be set while Nedeljkovic waited in the wings.
Then the off season happened. Bales baled for Buffalo, using an out in his contract to go back north to the area where he played in the AHL. Mcelhinney and Mrazek hit free agency. Suddenly, the Hurricanes were back where they started. The only goalies on the roster were an unhappy Darling and an unproven, at the NHL level, Nedeljkovic. Things seemed dire, especially around the time the rumors started sprouting that the team was talking to Semyon Varlomov. Cooler heads prevailed and the Canes locked in Mrazek for 2 years at around $3.13 million a season. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Canes swung a deal sending Scott Darling to the Florida Panthers along with a 6th round pick for backup James Reimer. Reimer has been a league average or better goalie wherever he has gone until last season when injuries and inconsistent play saw him post his lowest save % since 2011-2012 with Toronto. Add in Anton Forsberg and suddenly you have a lot of potential netminders. To round it off, the Canes brought in goalie coach, former Whaler and Brind’Amour teammate, Jason Muzzatti. Muzzatti has spent the last few seasons coaching goalies at Michigan State.
So where does this leave us heading into 2019-2020?
Mrazek earned the starter’s crease with this stellar play down the stretch as the Hurricanes fought their way into the playoffs. The Bruins seemingly found him out though, simply outwaiting the aggressive goalie and making one extra pass. That can happen in a 7 game series but shouldn’t prove to be a problem in the regular season. It is something to lookout for and if I was Muzzatti I would work on keeping Mrazek compact so he could more easily react to those situations. Mrazek, as long as he keeps his consistency from last season, should be fine. So, who is backing him up?
James Reimer is the closest thing to Mcelhinney left on the roster. Calm, efficient, and capable of making a big save when needed, he best provides the Yin to Mrazek’s Yang. There is some concern that injuries are catching up to him and he isn’t the goalie he used to be. At 3 million a season, he is also an expensive luxury that the team might not be able to afford if Williams returns since they’re so close to the cap. Reimer would give us a good fall back if Mrazek falters and we need someone to take a few games.
Anton Forsberg has been great in the AHL but was awarded an NHL salary by the arbitrators. Unless he took a step this offseason, I only seem him up in case of emergency. Depending on how training camp finds out he could also be traded, but he might be worth keeping just to have a veteran goalie down in the AHL.
Alex Nedeljkovic has accomplished all he really can in the AHL at this point. He’s won the Calder, been an All-Star, and won the Best Goalie award. He found a consistency in 2018-2019 that was missing in 2017-2018. If there was ever a time to give Ned a shot it would be this season. But relying on a rookie goalie to backstop your starter can be perilous, just ask Toronto. The Canes are just coming into their own and Ned figures to be a long term part of that plan. His best bet is to come into camp and play well enough to just not warrant starting the season in the AHL. Perhaps his biggest blocker is the fact that Mrazek and Ned play a similarly agressive game. That presents a mixed bag, on one hand it is nice for a defense to have two goalies that play the same way. There isn’t much that needs to be changed in approach. The downside is if the coach wants to mix up the match up and throw a different style of goalie out against an opponent it isn’t available. I might be the only person that worries about this aspect but it is something worth thinking about. Nedeljkovic deserves a shot at the NHL but the team is looking to build off last season’s success and just can’t hand him the backup job. It’s his to win.
Finally, perhaps the greatest mystery, is our new goalie coach Jason Muzzatti. Typically a goalie coach works his way up from the NCAA/Juniors to the AHL to the NHL. Muzzatti won IHL coach of the year in 09-10 and coached the goaltenders at Michigan State starting in 2015-2016. Michigan State hasn’t found much success on the ice during his tenure but the goaltending hasn’t been terrible with the goalies posting over a .900 save percentage during his time there. Ryan Miller has also credited Muzzatti and his goalie camp with helping his career. It’s a bit of a chance but he’s Brind’Amour’s pick and should bring some comfort. Goalie usage will be interesting to watch this season and I wonder if Brind’Amour will rely on his goalie coach this season like he did last season to make that decision.