Alex Nedeljkovic’s road to becoming an NHL starter was a bit of a squiggly line.
When the Hurricanes took him 37th overall in 2014, the belief was that Nedeljkovic was the future of the Hurricanes in net. It took him seven years, a Calder Cup and an AHL top goalie award until he finally got his chance to become an NHL starter, but once he finally reached the top, nobody could stop him.
And that’s where he is today. The Hurricanes currently hold a 2-0 series lead over Nashville – a series Carolina expects to win after an impressive regular season. But Nedeljkovic, the team’s third goalie for the first few months of the season, still wasn’t the clear choice to be the starter heading into the post-season despite being one of the best goalies in the league to finish out the season. Petr Mrazek was still the guy, right?
Nedeljkovic has been in the crease for both games so far against Nashville, even pitching a shutout in Game 2. Not too bad for someone that was placed on waivers to start the season and went unclaimed. It’s surprising now and surprising back then, too. Nedeljkovic won the AHL’s top goalie award at 23, but the team elected to keep him in the AHL last season after bringing in James Reimer. Mrazek and Reimer made a solid No. 1-2 duo, but injuries and the sometimes inconsistent nature of both of them hurt the true potential of the Hurricanes.
Mrazek missed significant time in 2021 and Nedeljkovic was tremendous in his absence, posting a 15-5-3 record with three shutouts during the regular season, including just one regulation loss in his final 11 games. The Hurricanes are hoping Nedeljkovic is the goalie of the future in Carolina, especially with both Reimer and Mrazek up for free agency this summer. Nedeljkovic is an RFA himself, and his hot play comes at just the right time for a beefy extension.
But what makes him so good? Rob Gherson, a former professional hockey goalie in the AHL and ECHL, is a goalie coach in the Toronto area and coaches with the North York Rangers of the OJHL. You may have seen his tweets throughout the 2020-21 season under the name @goalie_school, where he breaks down the play of some of the world’s top goalies.
His initial thoughts on watching Nedeljkovic?
“He’s not like a (Connor) Hellebuyck or like Carey Price when Price was in his prime where like everything looks easy,” Gherson said. “But his habits right now are so good. He’s not huge like a lot of guys in the NHL, but there is a lot of movement in his game,” Gherson added. “He’s very intense in the way he moves.”
Nedeljkovic isn’t a big goalie at 6-foot-0, so he needs to find ways to rely on his athleticism to make up for the smaller mass. Jonathan Quick has been considered the gold standard in small goalies, winning two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe at 6-foot-1. The average NHL height for a goaltender is 6-foot-3.
“He’s got like the like frenetic fanaticism of Quick,” Gherson said about Nedeljkovic. “He’s a little bit more conservative in his positioning than Quick. Quick sometimes would challenge way out and he’d be able to make that save on the pass across because his pushes were so crazy good. But I think Nedeljkovic is a little bit more controlled in that way. I think it’s really mostly a reflection of how goaltending has changed in the past five years. “Guys are playing a little deeper than they used to.”
That extra athleticism in his game could be a challenge as he gets older, but Nedeljkovic has been using that to his advantage. Outside of his puck-handling and his overall work ethic, Gherson said it’s his natural energy that really makes him a tough nut to crack.
“I think he uses his athleticism really well. He uses it to bail himself out and to bail teammates out,” Gherson said. “Some guys, when they’re really athletic, they end up opening up holes that shouldn’t be there because they’re trying to do too much. And right now, I think he looks really controlled.
“I like how willing he is to go out and play the puck,” Gherson added. “I like the way he plays the puck. He’s good at it. He can shoot it hard, but he’s not always trying to go long bomb. He’ll make simple plays a lot of the time, which is way more sustainable.”
Nedeljkovic does a good job of getting back into position for a rebound or a cross-crease pass, but it’s still something he can be caught off guard with. It hasn’t burned him too much this season as it did in the past, but as soon as he got used to playing against top competition, he has found a good balance. Still, it’s something worth noting about his play.
“If he doesn’t stay on top of his habits like focusing on beating passes, pushing as hard as he can on every pass, that’s where they can get in trouble, partly because he’s a little bit smaller,” Gherson said. “But just the way the game is, there’s such a low margin for error on a lot of plays.
Nedeljkovic’s future with the Canes looks bright. Many experts agree that, from what we’ve seen over Nedeljkovic’s development, that this isn’t a fluke. He’s been a top goaltending prospect for some time for a reason and he’s finally getting the chance to prove why.