RALEIGH, N.C. — For all that’s changed in the past year, since the Carolina Hurricanes gave Rod Brind’Amour the keys and told him to go build a team in his own image, one thing has not. From last year or the year before that or pretty much any year in recent years.
It’s May, and the Hurricanes aren’t sure right now who their starting goalie will be next fall. That’s the oldest story there is around here. The difference, of course, is that the Hurricanes approach things this time around from a position of strength.
If the default position is to bring back Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney, both unrestricted free agents, that worked well enough last year. After all those years when people wondered what would happen if the Hurricanes got average to above-average goaltending, they got it. And got all the way to the conference finals, breaking a decade-long playoff drought in the process.
“As far as Curtis and Petr, we’re under the feeling that we’d like to have both of them back,” Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell said Tuesday. “Saying that, they both have the right to be unrestricted free agents. So we will begin shortly talking to their representation. But our goal would be to bring them both back if we could.”
The details get trickier, and in many ways are representative of the biggest challenge the Hurricanes face this summer: Finding areas for improvement without losing sight of what made them click this season. The situation in goal is exactly that, and the decision whether to keep things the same or try to get better is not an easy one.
First, there’s the matter of Scott Darling, whose contract the Hurricanes will try to move before they have to engage in a costly buyout. If there’s a team flush with cash to pay Darling’s buyout — $5.9 million over the next three years — there might be a cap-eating contract the Hurricanes could take in return. Either way, the Hurricanes are ready to turn the page on Darling, who two summers ago was put forward as the answer to the same situation the Hurricanes are in now.
Then there’s Alex Nedeljkovic, who’s done just about everything he can to prove himself in the AHL. The Hurricanes used a second-round pick on him, and it’s time to see what he can do in the NHL on a semi-regular basis. Waddell indicated Tuesday that because Nedeljkovic can still move freely between the AHL and NHL for one more season, there’s no urgency, but Nedeljkovic has earned a shot, and the Hurricanes have to be careful what message they send to their other prospects if he cools his heels in Charlotte.
But the bigger questions involve the two goalies who shared the load and carried the Hurricanes into the playoffs. With Mrazek, it’s less about whether the Hurricanes want to bring him back than whether they can find common ground on a contract and with McElhinney, it’s less about whether the Hurricanes want to bring him back than whether they want to bring in a 1A-type goalie as a free agent to compete for the starting job.
Given Mrazek’s somewhat erratic history, the Hurricanes would prefer a shorter term, of two or three years. Mrazek might be able to get a longer-term deal elsewhere on the strength of this season. Mrazek’s future with the Hurricanes will hinge on those negotiations.
If Mrazek returns, the Hurricanes like McElhinney as a backup, but it may make more sense to turn that role over to Nedeljkovic or someone who can compete with Mrazek and potentially carry a heavier workload. There may even be a status-quo scenario where the Hurricanes carry all three goalies.
If Mrazek were to depart, the current class of free-agent goalies isn’t all that appealing — Semyon Varlamov is the top name on the list, assuming Sergei Bobrovsky is Florida-bound and Robin Lehner re-signs on the Island — but no one was that excited about Mrazek or Lehner last season, either.
The Hurricanes’ goalie tandem next season could be any combination of Mrazek, McElhinney, Nedeljkovic or a free agent like Varlamov, and that’s not taking any potential trades into account.
It’s a familiar position for the Hurricanes, but in years past their goaltending was a mystery because of a lack of options. This time it’s because they have several.
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