Petr Mrazek

Bunch of questions for Hurricanes during offseason

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The Carolina Hurricanes continued their strange pattern during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs: during the rare times when they reach the postseason, the Hurricanes have made a big run of it.

It surely was bittersweet to get swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final, much like it had been the last time the Hurricanes made the playoffs, when they were swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who eventually won the 2008-09 Stanley Cup.

Once the agony and ecstasy wears off from that run and the gutting sweep, the Hurricanes face a difficult task. They must build on this season, and ideally avoid spending another decade between playoff appearances. Most ideally, the Hurricanes would see this as a stepping stone to even bigger things in the future, rather than a peak that they can’t repeat.

Don Waddell is a finalist for GM of the Year, yet some of his toughest work could very well be ahead. It’s one thing to enjoy a Cinderella run, but what about becoming a consistent contender? Let’s consider some of the make-or-break factors and questions.

  • The goalie question(s)

For almost as long as they’d been out of the playoffs, the Hurricanes have grappled with problems in net.

To some surprise, the Petr MrazekCurtis McElhinney tandem eventually worked out for the Hurricanes this season, only crumbling after Round 2.

It could be a short-lived duo, however, as both Mrazek (27) and Curtis McElhinney (35) are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents. Should the Hurricanes bring one or both back? Where does 23-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic (37th overall in 2014) fit in? Would the Hurricanes be better off throwing their names in the Sergei Bobrovsky sweepstakes, or generally going after a bigger name?

There are some definite positives when looking at the Hurricanes’ salary structure at Cap Friendly.

Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Niederreiter are very affordable. Andrei Svechnikov has two more years on his entry-level deal. More or less dead money in Scott Darling and Alexander Semin’s buyout will expire after 2020-21.

Overall, Cap Friendly estimates that the Hurricanes only have about $54.24 million locked up in 14 players, and potential young additions such as Martin Necas should be cost-efficient.

But there are some contracts to hand out beyond whatever Carolina does in net, and Aho is the guy who could break the bank. Evolving Wild’s contract projections place Aho’s next cap hit at a hair above $10M per season, and even if Waddell can waddle that number down a bit, things could get challenging during a summer where other prominent RFAs (Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine, Brayden Point) could serve as the rising tides that lift all boats.

  • Other free agent calls

The Hurricanes also see two veterans eligible for the free agent market, as Justin Williams and Micheal Ferland need new deals. At 37, Williams still brings value, although you could argue that maybe the Hurricanes deployed him in excessively prominent spots at times. Ideally, you probably don’t want Williams on your top PP unit at this phase of his remarkable career. Ferland’s future with Carolina seemed to ebb and flow, with his season ending on such a low note that it might be surprising to see him back.

Then again, maybe that would make his asking price more modest? Teams often covet guys who can score a bit and also deliver hits like these.

  • Ship out some of that defensive surplus?

For some time, people have wondered if the Hurricanes might deal from their position of strength on defense to improve in other areas. That only intensified when they added Dougie Hamilton, who creates a mild logjam with Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce commanding big minutes as a right-handed defensemen.

That really didn’t feel like too much of a good thing during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though, as Jaccob Slavin and Calvin de Haan rounded out a great group.

Still, it’s fair to continue to ask that question. Faulk’s contract expires after next season, and Hamilton is only locked up through 2020-21. So who knows?

  • Go bold?

Let’s say the Hurricanes still have a decent chunk of change left over after figuring out their goalie situation, signing Aho, and tending to other business.

There’s a difference between bumping against the cap ceiling and dealing with an internal budget, and the question is: did this run inspire owner Tom Dundon to maybe spend a little bit more? The Hurricanes haven’t been named as suitors for the likes of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene, but maybe Carolina would hit an even higher level with a gamebreaker added to the mix? They certainly could’ve used just a little more oomph beyond Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov, and Jordan Staal when the Hurricanes were struggling to score against the Bruins, both on the power play and overall.

Going the trade route could be especially lucrative because the Hurricanes didn’t sell out their 2019 NHL Draft at the deadline. They have three second-round picks thanks to previous moves, so those could be used to sweeten certain deals. After building patiently through the draft for years, the Hurricanes are in a spot where they can be aggressive in seeking more immediate returns.

***

For the most part, the Hurricanes are a young team, and while you never know when everything’s going to click for deep playoff runs, it’s easy to imagine Carolina getting even better.

Then again, the 2008-09 Hurricanes probably thought there would be great days ahead, so it’s all about making the right moves — and getting some good luck.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Wraparound: Hurricanes need to solve Rask to avoid sweep

The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

This is it for the Carolina Hurricanes. Either they win tonight against the Boston Bruins or their Cinderella story ends in an Eastern Conference Final sweep (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream).

After Boston scored 11 goals over the first two contests, the Hurricanes decided to switch from goaltender Petr Mrazek to Curtis McElhinney for Game 3. McElhinney performed admirably, stopping 29 of 31 shots, but Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask has gotten better and better over the course of the 2019 playoffs. Only Calvin de Haan was able to get the puck by Rask on Tuesday en route to 2-1 victory for Boston that put the Bruins up 3-0 in the series.

After his strong performance, McElhinney will probably be in the net again tonight, though Hurricanes Rod Brind’Amour declined to said anything definitively.

“You never know,” Brind’Amour said, per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston

Despite dropping the contest, the Hurricanes took some silver linings from Game 3. Obviously they’re in a terrible position, but they do feel that they played better on Tuesday and are hoping if they carry that into tonight’s action, they’ll get a better result.

“We’ve been hit three times here, it takes four to knock us down,” Justin Williams said, per the News & Observer. “We’re just going to keep showing up and see what happens.”

The Hurricanes need to solve Rask. Ultimately, he’s the single biggest obstacle in their way. In particular, it would certainly help if Nino Niederreiter could step up. Niederreiter has just a goal and four points in 14 playoff games and has been held off the scoresheet in the Western Conference Final.

That’s in stark contrast to the regular season. Niederreiter scored 14 goals and 30 points in 36 contests after being acquired by Carolina to help the Hurricanes make the playoffs in the first place.

Teuvo Teravainen is another forward they could use more from. He had six goals and nine points in 11 playoff contests going into the series, but he’s been limited to a single point so far in the Eastern Conference Final. He logged 22:58 minutes in Game 3, but didn’t record any shots on goal.

Carolina also desperately needs to capitalize on their power-play chances. The Hurricanes were 0-for-5 on the power play in Game 3, dropping them to 1-for-12 in the series.

Even if the Hurricanes breakthrough Rask, the odds are still stacked heavily against them. Having up to four chances to close out the series is a huge luxury for Boston. Still, Carolina has no choice but to focus exclusively on this game and worry about the future only if they create one.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

WEDNESDAY’S SCOREBOARD
Sharks 5, Blues 4 (OT) (Sharks lead 2-1)

The Buzzer has more on Wednesday’s action

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• PHT roundtable
• Hurricanes/Bruins series preview
• PHT Conference Finals predictions

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

Hurricanes turn to Curtis McElhinney for Game 3

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The Carolina Hurricanes are making a change in net.

After dropping the first two games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins with Petr Mrazek, coach Rod Brind’Amour has decided to go with Curtis McElhinney for Game 3 of the series on Tuesday night.

Ever since Sunday’s 6-2 loss in Boston there had been plenty of discussion as to whether or not the Hurricanes should make a switch. Even though Brind’Amour acknowledged it was a possibility he refused to admit whether or not he was actually going to do it, even as recently as the morning skate on Tuesday.

But after McElhinney led the Hurricanes out on to the ice for warmups before Game 3 it became clear a change was going to happen.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

McElhinney picked up three wins for the Hurricanes in their Round 2 series sweep against the New York Islanders (McElhinney started two of the games, after picking up his first win in relief of an injured Mrazek) and will be making his third career postseason start.

The two goalies split the playing time throughout the regular season, so it’s not like the Hurricanes aren’t used to playing in front of both goalies.

In his first three appearances in these playoffs McElhinney has a .947 save percentage, stopping 71 of the 74 shots he has faced.

After giving up 10 goals in the first two games of the series, Mrazek’s save percentage has dipped down to .894 in the playoffs.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Goaltending defining Eastern Conference Final

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There are few worse times to be embroiled in a goaltending controversy, but here we are.

The Carolina Hurricanes could very well face a series-defining decision ahead of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final on Tuesday night at PNC Arena (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream). The Hurricanes return home with some extra baggage in the form of an 0-2 series deficit and a big question mark between the pipes.

Should Rod Brind’Amour pull the trigger and promote Curtis McElhinney ahead of Petr Mrazek? Will it make a difference against the Boston Bruins team armed to the teeth with firepower? Does a young coach have much of a choice? He wasn’t going to reveal his decision Tuesday morning.

“I can’t be that guy who does that,” Brind’Amour said. “Sorry.”

Brind’Amour let Mrazek eat six goals against in Game 2 as his playoff save percentage plummeted to .894. Blaming Mrazek for all 11 of the goals against in the first two games wouldn’t be fair. The Hurricanes haven’t been the same ‘Bunch of Jerks‘ that captured the attention of the hockey world through the first two rounds. Penalty woes, defensive breakdowns — they’ve all led to goals.

And yes, Mrazek has been to blame for a few as well.

The 35-year-old McElhinney has featured already in these playoffs. The latter half of Carolina’s 1A-1B tandem went 3-0 with a .947 save percentage before Mrazek returned (perhaps too early?) from a lower-body injury that forced him out of Game 2 of Round 2 against the New York Islanders.

Brind’Amour has to be taking a long look at McElhinney’s shining numbers. It’s must-win territory for the Hurricanes, who have been re-introduced to what a good offense entails after having a pretty easy time with the Islanders lackluster group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It might be a hot take, but it feels that the only way that Tuukka Rask emerges from the shadow of Tim Thomas is if he can lead the Bruins to the second Stanley Cup in eight years. Rask came close to having similar immediacy to his success in 2013 but the Bruins came up short in the lockout-shortened year against the Chicago Blackhawks.

With a little more rest this season, Rask seems reinvigorated and it’s putting himself in a position to create his own shadow.

While Rask’s job hasn’t appeared in jeopardy in these playoffs, starting out 2-3 against the Toronto Maple Leafs was far from ideal. Facing elimination may have been the best thing to happen to the Finn, however. It’s been ‘Tuukka Time’ ever since.

Rask is 8-2 dating back to Game 6 of Round 1, allowing 1.72 goals-against and stopping 94.4 percent of the shots he’s faced. He’s only become better as the playoffs have aged. During Boston’s five-game winning streak, Rask has dropped that GAA to 1.60 and upped the save percentage to .953.

The last time Rask played this good, ironically, was during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Two riddles to solve for Carolina, one at each end of the rink, and so little time to solve them.

MORE:
Should Hurricanes make goalie change for Game 3?
Why Hurricanes have embraced ‘bunch of jerks’ moniker
• PHT Conference Finals predictions

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Should Hurricanes make goalie change for Game 3?

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After a decade of consistent goaltending issues the Carolina Hurricanes finally found a winning combination this season with the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney.

It probably was not the duo anyone anticipated being the one to get them back to the playoffs and in the Eastern Conference Final, but the two veterans exceeded pretty much every expectation anyone could have possibly had for them at the start of the year. They relied on a near 50-50 split of the playing time throughout the regular season and have had to play both of them in the playoffs due to the injury to Mrazek halfway through their Round 2 series against the New York Islanders.

It was at that point that McElhinney stepped in and helped slam the door shut on the Islanders, recording his first three postseason wins.

Now that they are facing a two-game series deficit against the Boston Bruins, with Mrazek allowing 10 goals in his return to the lineup in those first two games, the discussion has shifted as to whether or not the Hurricanes should consider going back to McElhinney for Game 3 on Tuesday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

“We are every game,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday when asked if he had considered switching goalies. “We talk about it every night, what we’re going to do, and yeah, we’ve had the conversations already of what we’re going to do. We haven’t finalized anything but we’ve certainly discussed the options.”

Brind’Amour was quick to point out that even though they have discussed a goaltending switch, he didn’t think goaltending was the difference in the series. He even argued that given the way the Hurricanes played in Game 2 it probably wouldn’t have mattered what Mrazek did in net.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I don’t know if it would have mattered if Petr was great,” he said. “It wouldn’t have mattered. So certainly, we’re down 2-0, but it’s not because of goaltending from our end.”

There is probably a lot of truth to that statement, especially as it relates to their Game 2 play. But the facts are the Hurricanes are returning home facing a near must-win situation and their current starter in net (Mrazek) has been really hot and cold so far in the playoffs and is currently going through one of his “cold” spells, having stopped just 42 of the 52 shots the Bruins have thrown at him.

The thing about Mrazek this postseason — and pretty much all of his postseason starts throughout his career — is that he is either been really, really good, or really, really bad when he has played. Five of his nine career postseason wins have been a shutout. He has two shutouts this postseason alone and a save percentage of .919 or better in five of his 11 appearances. The Hurricanes are also 5-0 in those games.

The flip side of that is he also has five starts with a save percentage lower than .880, which is more than any other goalie in the postseason. And again, he has only appeared in 11 games. Just looking at the other three goalies still playing in the Conference Finals, San Jose’s Martin Jones has been below .880 in four of his 15 starts. St. Louis’ Jordan Binnington has been below .880 in only three of his 14 starts. Boston’s Tuukka Rask has not had one start with a save percentage that low.

There has been a real “boom or bust” element to Mrazek’s play, and with the situation in the series starting to really get serious the Hurricanes are going to need a strong performance in net against a Bruins team that is clicking on all cylinders. Mrazek has shown he is perfectly capable of playing that sort of game in these playoffs. He has also shown he is capable of giving up a lot of goals.

So there is a bit of a dice roll in sticking with him for Game 3, especially given how well McElhinney played in relief of him in Round 2.

There is obviously a sample size issue at play here, and a bit of a recency bias, because McElhinney has played so little in the playoffs and really hasn’t had many opportunities to show some cracks. When we’ve seen him play, he has played well. But he has played so little (and only against what was probably the weakest offensive team in the playoffs) it is next to impossible to know what you are going to get in his next start. At the end of the day we’re talking about a 35-year-old goalie that has been a nice backup throughout his career and never been relied on to be a starter for any length of time on a Stanley Cup run.

Brind’Amour was asked on Monday if the decision on who to start is a difficult one, and was quick to point out that it wasn’t because they have faith in both players.

“Actually it’s an easy decision,” he said. “I know we’ve talked about it a lot, and it’d be easy if I just sat here and said we’re starting [whoever]. But we’re confident any way we go, so do we make a change? We might. But it might be for a different reason than you guys think. We’ll know tomorrow.”

At the end of the day, the fact they have to have this conversation and make this decision is just another sign that goaltending is still the biggest flaw this up-and-coming team has. By having two equally competent and interchangeable goalies, neither of which is a bonafide No. 1 starter, they don’t really have a go-to player that they can count on in a situation like this.

Given the way Mrazek has played so far in the series and the situation the team is in, a change might be justified, especially since you don’t really know which version of him will show up on Tuesday night.

But the same thing is true with option B.

Either way you’re taking a pretty big chance.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.