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Will the Hurricanes’ goalie changes pay off?

Carolina Hurricanes

Goaltending has been the one major question for the Carolina Hurricanes for the better part of the past decade.

The position has been a revolving door of short-term solutions with varying degrees of success. But during the 2020-21 season the trio of Alex Nedeljkovic, Petr Mrazek, and James Reimer clicked in every possible way and combined for one of the best team save percentages in the entire league, and gave the Hurricanes a capable three-headed monster that helped power them to the top of their division.

The responded this offseason by completely redoing the entire position.

  • Reimer and Mrazek left in free agency.
  • Nedelkjovic was traded to Detroit.
  • They signed free agents Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta to replace all of the exiting goalies.

That is where the Hurricanes stand now going into the 2021-22 season. Let’s dig into it a little bit here.

Trading Nedelkjovic is surprising but also understandable

This is the obvious starting point because it was such a surprising move given his success last season.

Ndelkjovic was a game-changer for the Hurricanes and put together a magnificent season, complete with a .932 save percentage that was good enough for the top mark in the league. Maybe the type of goalie performance that would make most teams say, “this is our goalie, we do not need to look anywhere else.”

Then the Hurricanes traded him to Detroit for the free agent rights to Jonathan Bernier (who later signed in New Jersey in free agency) and a third-round draft pick.

It was an eye-opening move not only because he was really good, but also because he was a restricted free agent and it created speculation that the Hurricanes may not have wanted to pay him his asking price. But there is a sensible hockey argument for moving on from him when they did. The reasoning is simple: At no point in Nedelkjovic’s career has he ever consistently played at a level close to that for a full season. Not in the AHL. Not in the ECHL. Even in his junior league days he did not produce numbers like that.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

While projecting goalies and their performance is sometimes an exercise in futility, how confident are you that a 25-year-old goalie, after multiple years of good, but not great, play suddenly became an All-Star level player out of nowhere?

Crazier things have happened with goalies, but it is a calculated gamble on the part of the Hurricanes to trade him at what might have been his highest possible value. There could be nowhere to go but down for his production after this.

While the return might seem like a small price, you have to also keep in mind the trade market for goalies is always tough. Even the good, established goalies do not bring significant returns.

What do Raanta and Andersen have left?

This is the ultimate question for the Hurricanes right now because it will play a big role in what they are able to do this season.

At one time Raanta and Andersen were both among the most productive goalies in the league when healthy. Between 2015-16 and 2019-20 no goalie (minimum 100 games played) had a higher save percentage than Raanta’s .923 mark, while Andersen was 12th (out of 55 goalies) at .918. They were both outstanding for several years.

But that run ended two years ago and both goalies are now into their 30s, while injuries have seriously impacted Raanta’s availability and productivity the past couple of seasons. Since the start of the 2019-20 season Raanta and Andersen saw their save percentages drop down to 17th and 45th respectively.

Andersen was a rock in Toronto for his first three years with the team, taking on a major workload and playing behind a team that was not always totally focussed on defense (at least in his early days with the team). He not only produced at a better than league average rate despite that, he was also extremely durable and capable of playing major minutes. But his production has dropped the past two years while he was limited to just 24 regular season games this past season during what was the least productive season of his NHL career.

It seems like a given that this is going to be a shared net and that neither goalie is going to be relied on to carry the bulk of the playing time, and maybe that is what they both need at this stage of their careers? Perhaps if you get each of them for 37-45 games and let then split time you can get the most out of them at this stage of their careers while keeping them both fresh.

When it comes to big picture track records both of them are more proven over a far lengthier stretch of time than Nedelkjovic, whose entire career to this point has been made off of 32 games in a shortened season with an unbalanced schedule. It may not be a surprise if the the Andersen-Raanta duo produce better results this year than what Nedelkjovic produces in Detroit.