Petr Mrazek brings to Blackhawks a history of excelling when doubted
Expectations are very low for Mrazek as the tanking Hawks’ new starting goalie, but his 2018 success story with the Hurricanes might be repeatable.
Petr Mrazek is entering an extremely difficult situation with the Blackhawks.
The 30-year-old goaltender will have an awful team defending the ice in front of him. And Hawks management won’t particularly mind if he’s awful, too.
He was acquired from the Maple Leafs this summer partly to add another first-round pick — because his contract is so oversized it had negative value — and partly because, if he struggles in 2022-23 like he did in 2021-22, it’ll aid the Hawks’ goal of tanking. He appeared in only 20 games last year because of multiple injuries, and he posted an .888 save percentage when he did play.
That’s not Mrazek’s personal goal, though. He believes he still can excel as an NHL starting goalie. And his track record suggests he might be right.
“I’m always motivated every single year, every single game,” Mrazek said Wednesday on Zoom from his native Czechia. “I don’t think there’s something to prove. I’ve been in the league for a long time. I know how to prepare for the season, how to prepare for the games.
“[The] No. 1 priority is to prepare this offseason, get ready, get healthy and play the game I like and that I know how to play.”
Four years ago, Mrazek was being counted out just like he is now. His once-promising Red Wings tenure flamed out, and he posted an .891 save percentage in 17 games for the Flyers at the end of the 2017-18 season. The Flyers didn’t give him a qualifying offer, letting him walk as a free agent.
But Mrazek personally called Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell on July 1 — without the knowledge of his agent, Gerry Johannson — and asked for a one-year contract at $1.5 million. Johansson was initially baffled by Mrazek’s rogue and below-market-value ask, Waddell recounted to The Athletic in October 2018, but eventually relented.
Mrazek’s gamble on himself paid off handsomely. During three seasons with the Hurricanes, he went 50-32-8, posted a .911 save percentage, saved 4.3 goals above expected and qualified for the playoffs all three times. That earned him the aforementioned three-year contract worth $11.4 million from the Leafs last summer.
Mrazek on Wednesday downplayed the similarities between his 2018 and 2022 situations — “Being hurt, it’s more difficult than coming off a bad season,” he said — but it’s obvious he knows how to mentally handle adversity.
He’s learning how to handle it physically, as well. He has spent this offseason seeing various doctors and specialists to determine the root cause of his injury issues and find a way to stay consistently healthy.
“It has been a tough two seasons with injuries, so that’s something I want to put aside,” he said. “Being hurt isn’t fun. It sucks.
“I didn’t change anything in the gym or on the ice. Those things have been around for so long, I know what I need. The No. 1 thing was to find the best physiotherapist to tell me why [this is happening] and what to do.”
The Hawks do need Mrazek to stay healthy. His new backup, Alex Stalock, is also shaky healthy-wise: Stalock is 34 and has played in just one NHL game (and 17 AHL games) over the last two years because of a since-resolved myocarditis issue. The Hawks don’t want to have to throw talented goalie prospect Arvid Soderblom, who will start in Rockford, into the NHL fire this season.
But although the Hawks might not anticipate that much success will accompany Mrazek’s healthiness, there’s a real possibility he could surprise everyone and greatly exceed expectations.
“I feel really, really good right now,” he said. “I want to play as many games as I can, and we’ll go from there.”