One of the beautiful parts of the game of hockey is its unpredictability. Every year young guns spring up and take “the leap,” turning into stars seemingly out of nowhere. Previously underperforming players turn into key contributors. Or, conversely, an established veteran can put together a forgettable campaign. It keeps the game fresh. Teams often have no choice but to thrust unproven players into the spotlight. Especially in the present, the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, unforeseen circumstances seem to be waiting around every corner.
The Carolina Hurricanes have seen their fair share of adversity in 2021. Positive COVID tests caused a handful of games to be re-scheduled, as well as multiple absences from key players and their subsequent struggles getting back to themselves upon returning to the lineup. Starting goaltender Petr Mrazek went down in just his fourth appearance of the season after a scorching-hot start, which included a .955 save percentage (SV%) and two shutouts in his first three games.
Jake Gardiner, who had been playing his best hockey with the organization, had his back issues creep up (again, unfortunately). And, more recently, 1/3 of the team’s top-six went down with injuries that ended up being longer-term than initially hoped or expected.
But, for two players, these hardships presented an opportunity, and Martin Necas and Alex Nedeljkovic have burst through the door.
It may seem odd to start off talking about unpredictability then focus on a player that pretty clearly had a massive ceiling and was successful in the NHL at only 21 years old. Still, you would have had a hard time convincing many Hurricanes fans that anyone was going to potentially knock Teuvo Teravainen off Sebastian Aho’s wing before the season started. Yet, here we are.
The 12th pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft has always been a phenomenal offensive talent. After two years of playing against men in the Czech Republic (where he picked up 32 points in 65 games over two seasons), Carolina decided Necas was prepared for the transition to North America at age 19. He would actually begin the 2018-19 season breaking camp with the Hurricanes, but after ripping his first NHL goal against Louis Domingue and the Tampa Bay Lightning, he would get sent down to the AHL the next day.
While naturally a bit disappointed in not being able to stick in the NHL, after a short adjustment period, Necas’ stock exploded. While questions remained about his defensive play (obviously, far from uncommon in young, offense-first players), he became a driving force on one of the AHL’s best teams. He regularly showcased his superb skating, vision, and offensive IQ, then was eventually a key component of the Checkers’ Calder Cup victory. He contributed 52 points in 64 regular-season contests, then another 13 points in his 18 postseason games.
By the following season, he was ready to make his next jump. While his rookie season in the NHL was rock-solid, with 16 goals and 36 points in 64 games, there was an obvious extra gear for head coach Rod Brind’Amour to unlock. It turns out, all it took was a promotion to the top line for the head coach to simply unleash the kid.
Although the Hurricanes currently sit in third place in the NHL by both points and points percentage, the forward group has dealt with a few massive blows. Vincent Trocheck was leading the club in goals — and carrying the team’s #1-ranked power play — when he went down with an upper-body injury on March 9. Teravainen, who has developed into one of the more underrated two-way forces in the league the last three seasons, suffered a concussion and has played one game since Feb. 19.
Teravainen has fantastic chemistry on the top line with fellow Fin Sebastian Aho. Both possess high-end skill, hockey IQ and the ability to seemingly always know where each other is to create highlight-reel plays. Both losses loomed large.
Well, enter Necas. The second-year forward has not only helped make up for the loss of two key, top-six forwards, but he has absolutely thrived in an increased role alongside the best linemate he has had in his career thus far. Necas’ points-per-game rate has jumped from 0.56 last season to 0.83 in 2021.
Perhaps more impressively, Necas has turned his defensive deficiencies into a legitimate strength. While he was timid and would get caught puck watching in his own end in the past, his vastly improved compete level and awareness in his own end are certainly no coincidence under Brind’Amour. The longtime Hurricane centerman was elite defensively in his own right, and many skill players on the roster — including Aho — have grown by leaps and bounds in their own ends since coming under the tutelage of Brind’Amour.
This has allowed his role to further expand, as Necas has begun earning penalty kill minutes for the club. Not only has he adequately contributed, but he has actually been quite dangerous while down a man. 200-foot competence leads to trust from Brind’Amour, from trust comes ice time, and from ice time comes confidence. Sometimes, hockey can be pretty simple.
In Thursday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Necas was probably (along with the guy we will talk about next) the biggest reason the Canes walked away with two points. He scored a beautiful wraparound goal after a massive burst of speed caught the Jackets completely off-guard late in the second period that staked the Canes to a 2-1 lead. Once the game went to overtime, he made a defensive play to cause a turnover for a breakaway. Though initially denied, he stuck with the play to re-center and find Aho for a tap-in goal.
His vision is really where he makes his money. Necas has an uncanny ability to fit passes through tight windows, and he seems to thrive stickhandling right under defenders’ feet. He also makes many clever and legal stick plays. Examples include when he will basically play the puck into the triangle between a player’s feet and blade of his stick, push the puck ahead as sort of a little self-area-pass, then right before the opponent thinks they can turn to retrieve the puck, he gives a quick stick lift and blows by them. He’s electric with the puck on his stick, making plays and reading the ice at top speed.
This video shows another key component to what makes Necas so effective — he is a zone entry machine. His skating plays a big part in this, but as seen here, he knows where the open ice is, if there is an open man to find cutting far side, or if he should make the safe play and dump it for the Hurricanes to get on their forecheck. And how many players can make that saucer pass between basically all five defenders look so easy? He draws so much attention with his dazzling hands and skating that the Red Wings left Aho, of all people, cutting wide open on the weak side.
Necas has arrived in March, picking up 13 points in 12 games. The Hurricanes have gone 9-1-2 in that span. His role continues to grow alongside his confidence, which allows his high-end skill to come out more often. He can sometimes be overshadowed by players like Andrei Svechnikov and Aho, but it’s time to start paying attention to the rising star from the Czech Republic as well.
Alex Nedeljkovic has had an absolute roller coaster of a professional career, but — and this could almost be my catchphrase at this point — goalie development is not linear.
“Ned” was once a top draft prospect and eventually a second-round pick of the Hurricanes. He carried some rough Plymouth Whalers rosters to the playoffs in his OHL days and was sensational for Team USA in international play as well. He won the Goaltender of the Year Award in both the AHL and OHL. He scored a goal in both the AHL and ECHL. And he often followed up stellar outings with frustrating bouts of inconsistency.
Although below the standard size for the current goalie archetype (6-foot, 200 pounds), “Ned” displayed high-end athleticism, a scrappy style, and phenomenal puck-playing ability. Something always seemed to be missing, though, and his extremely aggressive style sometimes led to straying and easy goals for his opponents.
He is not unlike Mrazek, as they play a similar style as small, aggressive goalies who sometimes rely too much on their athleticism and get caught out of position.
Though he had that long history of success at the junior and minor league levels, early in the year, it began to look like Nedeljkovic’s rope was running out to be an NHL goaltender, or at least a no. 1. His starts in the NHL were similarly inconsistent, with a handful of good starts, such as a 17-saves-on-17-shots relief appearance of Cam Ward in 2016-17, or his first NHL start in Vancouver in January 2019, when he stopped 24 of 26 shots and earned his first win. The organization never seemed to trust him, however, and the lack of opportunity never truly allowed him to get his feet wet and find comfort at the NHL level.
But then, that opportunity arose out of nowhere. The Mrazek injury left the Hurricanes with only James Reimer on the roster, a 33-year-old who has proven to be at his best in a smaller workload than a typical starter would get. Especially with a condensed schedule, it was fair to wonder how much the Hurricanes would be able to ride him.
Nedeljkovic took a few starts to settle in, but he has since been one of the best goalies in the entire league and left once-hesitant Canes fans yearning for a bigger workload for the 25-year-old. The Hurricanes have not had a successful, home-grown starter since Cam Ward. Now it is beginning to look like they have found the next one.
After going 1-1-1 and allowing at least three goals in each of his first three starts, Nedeljkovic has gone 7-1-1 with a .943 SV% since. He has allowed more than 2 goals just twice, and never more than 3. Despite being without their starting goalie, it is hard to ask for much more than that. He has given the Hurricanes a chance to win every game, even though they have battled through inconsistencies as a group with the injury situation.
Reimer had gotten an alternating workload up until this point; Reimer one night, Nedeljkovic the next. However, in the recent four-game set against Columbus, Nedeljkovic received the first back-to-back start of his NHL career. He made 33 saves and got the win on the second leg to reward the team’s faith, including some stellar stops such as this:
Evolving Wild’s GSAx stat (goals saved above expectation) is one of the better metrics for determining a goaltender’s performance. Measuring shot quality against saves, it gives Nedeljkovic a 6.36 mark, the ninth-best mark in the entire league, which suggests he has made six additional saves than he “should” have on the season.
Not bad for a guy who was waived in January and passed on by all 30 NHL teams (Reimer is 20th at -1.19, which is fine, but clearly inferior).
Nedeljkovic’s aggressiveness fits quite well within the Hurricanes system as an up-tempo, forechecking team. He fits for another reason, too, though — his puck-playing ability lets the Hurricanes’ defense break the puck out almost instantly. He is effectively another defenseman on the back end, and he makes it incredibly difficult for opposing forechecks to get in a rhythm and disrupt the breakout. For a team that plays a possession style and wants to counter-attack to get in on their own forecheck, this ability is invaluable.
It is funny how these things go; if Mrazek never suffers a wrist injury from a collision with Max McCormick, we likely never see Nedeljkovic suit up for the Hurricanes this season. Now, he has placed himself in contention to be one of, if not the, franchise’s goalie of the future.
One of the best ways to win in all professional sports is having young, key players on rookie or otherwise cheap deals. The Hurricanes have a multitude, even well beyond the two mentioned here. This is a franchise with extremely high aspirations over the next half-decade, with a still-stacked pipeline and a young, star-studded, and balanced roster. With their newest top-six playmaker and potential homegrown, no. 1 goalie, this is becoming a harder and harder team to bet against.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects, to game recaps, and everything in between. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!