Four goalies, two spots.
For most of training camp, that was the decision — dilemma? — facing Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour and management types.
Petr Mrazek helped the Canes get back into the playoffs last year. James Reimer is an experienced veteran with 144 career wins. Anton Forsberg had a good camp. Alex Nedeljkovic was the American Hockey League goalie of the year.
“I like all four,” Brind’Amour said more than once during camp. “I like our goaltending situation.”
But when the Canes turned in their opening-night roster to the league on Tuesday, Mrazek and Reimer were the two goalies. Nedeljkovic already had been assigned to the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate, and Forsberg joined him, having already passed through NHL waivers.
“That was the toughest decision,” Brind’Amour said.
Mrazek, 27, came to Carolina a year ago on a one-year contract, saying he liked it that way and wanted only a chance to prove himself. He first believed he’d be competing with Scott Darling for the No. 1 job but ended up splitting time with Curtis McElhinney after Darling was injured — never returning to the form he showed in preseason — and McElhinney claimed on waivers from Toronto.
Mrazek started 40 games, going 23-14-3 and closing with a 2.39 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He was a fiery type in net, taking on players who wandered into his crease, and the polar opposite emotionally of the stolid McElhinney, who had a career-high 33 starts and won a career-high 20 games.
Together, they produced the kind of quality starts needed to get the Canes into the Stanley Cup playoffs, then win series over the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.
“You have to prove yourself every single day,” Mrazek said to the media during training camp. “I love a challenge. I came here last year to show what I am able to do and I’m happy it worked out like that.”
McElhinney, made a better offer by the Tampa Bay Lightning, left in free agency. By the time Mrazek signed a two-year, $6.25 million deal with Carolina on July 1, the Canes had picked up Forsberg in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks and Reimer from the Florida Panthers. And Nedeljkovic and the Checkers had won the AHL’s Calder Cup, a franchise first.
Reimer, 31, appeared in 123 games the past three seasons with the Panthers, with 110 starts. His numbers were pedestrian last season — a 3.09 goals-against average and .900 save percentage — and led to questions about how many quality starts he can give the Canes this season.
Mrazek started a career-high 49 games for the Detroit Red Wings in 2015-16, when many believed he was a rising star in the league. That didn’t happen. Traded by the Red Wings to the Philadelphia Flyers during the 2017-18 season, Mrazek struggled and was not given a qualifying offer by the Flyers after the season, becoming a free agent.
With a chance to prove himself with the Canes, he did. Reimer believes he can do the same.
“We both came up through the system and had our licks and I’ve been banged around,” Reimer said in an N&O interview Tuesday. “I think our careers are similar in that sense. You’ve had ups and you’ve had downs and so I think you respect the guy even more when your journeys have been similar. He’s a good guy, works hard and I think it will be fun to work together.”
Basic hockey economics played into the Mrazek-Reimer roster combination. Reimer has a $3.4 million cap hit this season and in 2020-21. Mrazek will make $3 million this season and $3.25 in 2020-21.
The Canes sent Darling and his $4.75 million salary to the Checkers for a chunk of last season, Darling taking a personal leave of absence in February. But that was a rare situation and the Canes moved Darling to Florida in the Reimer deal.
Forsberg, after the trade from Chicago, filed for salary arbitration and was awarded a one-year, one-way contract for $775,000 this season despite being in the AHL in 2018-19. Nedeljkovic, 23, has a two-way contract this season and is waivers exempt, two factors that worked against him staying up with the Canes despite his stellar 2018-19 season in Charlotte.
Forsberg got more work than Reimer in the preseason, playing 117:25 in three games to Reimer’s 83:47 in his three appearances. He faced 57 shots to Reimer’s 29.
“In preseason it comes down to you have to see the puck and start to get comfortable, and I think I did that,” Reimer said. “You make sure your game is where it needs to be and make sure your compete level is exactly where it needs to be.”
For now, it’s Mrazek and Reimer. Mrazek will start the season opener Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens. With a back-to-back Saturday and Sunday, Brind’Amour could go with Reimer in Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay and have Mrazek face the Caps, again, on Saturday.
(Number, name, birthplace, age, height, weight)
34 Petr Mrazek
Ostrava, Czech Republic, 27, 6-1, 190
Showed he was capable of being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL in 2018-19 and was in net when the Canes clinched a playoff berth and the double-overtime Game 7 playoff win against Washington. Signed two-year contract with Canes. Cap hit: $3.125 million.
47 James Reimer
Morweena, Manitoba, Canada, 31, 6-2, 220
Reimer spent parts of six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs before being traded to San Jose in 2015-16 and then signing as a free agent with the Florida Panthers. Looking to jumpstart his career with the Canes. Cap hit: $3.4 million
Salary source: CapFriendly.com