It’s a good thing when a young goalie you invested half a decade of resources into turns out to be something.
That’s what the Hurricanes have in Alex Nedeljkovic, the 25-year-old Calder Trophy candidate who finally found his full-time footing in the NHL four years after his first start. With a 15-5-3 record with three shutouts in 23 regular season games, followed by a couple of great performances in the post-season against Nashville and Tampa Bay, Nedeljkovic established himself as one of the better young goaltenders in the NHL this season and worthy of a full-season shot as a starting goalie.
So where does that leave Petr Mrazek? Mrazek has been the team’s starting goalie over the past three seasons, with the highlight being his strong playoff run a year ago in the bubble after sharing the net with James Reimer throughout the season. But Mrazek is 29, and while he’s been the best goaltender the Hurricanes have had over the past decade, we’re talking about someone who has a history of inconsistency and injuries.
Mrazek is one of the better goalies on the free agent market this summer, but the market isn’t short on quality. Tuukka Rask, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Philipp Grubauer, Jonathan Bernier, Linus Ullmark, Jaroslav Halak and Chris Driedger, among others, will all be quality names potentially looking for new homes this off-season. Of them, Mrazek was among the fewest games played this past season with 12, but on a cap-friendly $3.125-million hit.
Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Mrazek’s .944 save percentage at 5-on-5 put him fourth in the league during the regular season. Nedeljkovic finished one spot higher with a .945, so it’s a sign of good defense in Carolina, but Mrazek played well enough in his 12-game stint to earn a solid payday this off-season.
When Mrazek is good, he’s good. But when he’s bad – and that’s too often to be reliable – then it’s ugly. His 2019-20 regular season was rough from a statistical standpoint, and it seems like he can’t fully be trusted as a true No. 1 right now. But if he’s in a situation where he doesn’t need to be counted on to always be the main guy, he’s been good enough.
Ideally, the Canes could keep Mrazek and build one of the better 1-2 punches in the league. It would especially be a risk if they ended up going with Nedeljkovic as the No. 1 without the proper insurance behind him – something Pittsburgh learned the hard way with Tristan Jarry as the No. 1 without Matt Murray (who, ultimately, had a poor 2020-21 season by all accounts).
The latest news about Dougie Hamilton does spice things up a bit. Hamilton is free to look around to different suitors this off-season, which means re-signing him might not be a thing. But still, that doesn’t mean Mrazek has an open spot, either. Nedeljkovic will be an RFA and will be re-signed. Reimer is a UFA like Mrazek. The Hurricanes don’t have an immediate replacement in the running that can give the Canes a nice tandem, so either one of the veterans return or they look outside for help. Reimer, when healthy, is still a solid backup and the veteran presence would be great. While he may not have the high-end talent Mrazek does, it at least should be a cheaper option that’s reliable when healthy.
Mrazek has been a popular figure in Carolina. He has had many ups and downs, but the highs have outweighed the lows. Hurricanes will miss him if he leaves, but it might be the best call for all parties involved. They may not need him anymore if Nedeljkovic is truly the real deal, and given his AHL resume before finally going full-time, that’s definitely a possibility. Jeremy Helvig meets the exposure requirement for Seattle at the expansion draft, so they don’t need to worry about losing one of them.
Mrazek will have no lack of suitors vying for his services this off-season, including the Hurricanes. It would be in the team’s best interests to keep him in the fray for another year and run a nice 1A/B tandem, especially with Nedelkovic’s lack of experience at this level. As more teams but an emphasis on strong backup goaltending, giving up on Mrazek could backfire in a big way, but there’s a ton of other great options available that could spice things up. Maybe bringing back Andersen – someone with a lot to prove after a tough season in Toronto – after originally passing on his rights a decade ago is in order?
Regardless, it should be an interesting summer for one of the league’s most coveted free agent goalies.