The road for Alex Nedeljkovic to finally get his chance in the NHL has been a long one. Drafted way back in 2014 after winning the Goaltender of the Year award in the OHL during the 2013-14 season, Nedeljkovic was always thought of to be the Carolina Hurricanes’ long-term future in net. But with a slow burn in development and his chances seemingly nearly impossible to come by, the last couple of years, it began to feel like Nedeljkovic would never get a real shot in Carolina.
And then came this season, where he’s expelled all doubt about him being an NHL level goaltender. He’d proven himself as a top-tier goalie at every level (OHL, ECHL, and the AHL) and out-grown those levels of competition to the point where he clearly just needed a chance to prove himself in the NHL. He finally got that chance this season, and the question has shifted from “is he an NHL goaltender?” to “can he truly be the Canes’ franchise guy?” And I truly believe he can.
If you want a perfect example of a guy graduating beyond every level of competition, Nedeljkovic is an excellent case. As mentioned, he won the Goalie of the Year Award in the OHL during the 2013-14 season and put together a fantastic OHL career overall. His success in junior led to him being called upon as Team USA’s starting goaltender at the 2016 U20 World Junior Championships, where he won a bronze medal and finished second amongst all goaltenders with a .943 save percentage (SV%).
From there, he transitioned quite seamlessly into professional hockey, working his way up from the ECHL ranks into a starting role with the Charlotte Checkers just one year into his pro career. In the 2018-19 season, Nedeljkovic won the AHL Goaltender of the Year Award and led the Checkers to the Calder Cup Finals, where they were victorious. His 2.34 goals-against average (GAA) and .916 SV% in 15 games were crucial to their success.
At that point, it looked like “Ned” was primed for a full-time NHL role. But in the summer of 2019, when he signed a new two-year deal with the team, many observers were surprised to see that the first year of the extension was a two-way deal. Two days later, the ‘Canes traded for James Reimer, and the day after that they re-signed their incumbent starter Petr Mrazek to a two-year deal, which left Nedeljkovic third on the depth chart. The acquisition of Anton Forsberg later that summer complicated things even further.
Fast forward to Feb 2020 and the legendary David Ayres game. With the ‘Canes losing both Mrazek and Reimer to injury, Nedeljkovic was finally poised for an actual run of games with the club. Unfortunately, a bit of inconsistency (despite showing promise) followed by the COVID-19 virus shutting down the 2019-20 regular season led to just four starts for Nedeljkovic – in which he posted a 1-2-1 record with a 3.05 GAA and a .887 SV%. That showing left his future even cloudier than it was prior.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, Ned once again found himself behind Mrazek and Reimer on the depth chart, and despite having the guarantee of a one-way salary, had very little hope of carving out an opening night role. In what seemed like the end of the Nedejkovic saga, he was placed on waivers on Jan 12, 2021 – after just five starts for the team that put almost seven years into his development. There was a collective sigh of relief from the ‘Canes fanbase the following day when he remarkably passed through waivers unclaimed, but little faith was left.
Finally Getting a Chance
He started the season off on the Canes’ taxi squad but was catapulted into the backup role after an unfortunate injury to Mrazek early on in the season. After backing up Reimer for four straight games after his promotion, Ned finally got his shot. But first, three starts were much of the same as we’d seen in the past. While he showed some promise, he lost two of the three, allowing 10 goals in those games and sporting a sub-.900 SV% in each of them.
But things changed for him during the Canes’ absurd four-game series with Tampa Bay in late February, when Nedeljkovic got his first career shutout during a 4-0 victory and followed that performance up with a 25-save, 3-0 loss. Despite the result, he was genuinely sensational throughout the game. His aggressive demeanor in net, coupled with his serious athletic ability, led to Canes fans calling for Ned to get more starts, especially as Reimer was beginning to struggle a little.
It’s been nothing but an upward trend for Nedeljkovic since then. He was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for March after finishing the month with a 6-1-1 record, a 1.85 GAA, and a .934 SV%. He’s followed that up with another superb run of form in April, with a 5-1-1 record and just 12 goals allowed in seven starts. And with Mrazek returning to fully healthy and working his way back into the picture (though he’s now hurt again), it’s quite evident that Nedeljkovic has surpassed Reimer on the depth chart.
And his ascension has been totally earned. As of this writing, Ned leads the entire NHL in both GAA (1.98) and SV% (.930) amongst all qualified goaltenders (which are goalies who’ve started 10+ games). Stats don’t always tell the entire story, but in this case, they really do. He’s been nothing short of sensational, and at age 25, he seems to be finally blossoming into the goalie the Hurricanes invested so much into over the past several years.
Is He the Future?
So, therefore, over the past three months, the question has shifted from “does Nedeljkovic even have an NHL future,” to “is he the Canes’ future?” and right now, I’d say there’s a lot of signs pointing to yes. At 25, he’s still considered extremely young at the goaltending position – despite it feeling like he’s been around forever. And his play has given the Canes a ton of reason to believe that he can be their guy.
Though the knock against him has always been that he’s undersized and prone to lapses in concentration, he hasn’t shown any signs of those being issues that still plague him at this stage of his career. He’s been near flawless in his 19 starts this season. He’s extremely light in the net, which allows him to get across the crease quickly and makes him super difficult to read for attackers. He’s also very smart, and while he seemed trigger-happy to wander out of his crease to play the puck in his first few starts, he’s really settled down and learned to pick his spots better.
He’s easily one of the best goaltenders in hockey when it comes to playing the puck, and he’s got superb athletic ability. His reflexes are sharp, and his desperation save ability has been on full display. Some might say it’s luck, but this is a kid oozing with confidence right now and has had identical success at every level of hockey. And while his angles facing the shooter are sometimes a little questionable, he plays bigger than his 6-foot, 200-pound frame in goal and has shown he’s not afraid to attack any shot.
This is a kid who’s got all the intangibles that scouts look for in a franchise guy, despite being undersized. And as far as I can tell from my research, he’s never missed a single game due to injury since being drafted – which is seven years straight of availability. This kid’s durability is impeccable, and as the saying goes: availability is the best ability, and he’s proven that you can always rely on him.
When you take a look at the overall scope of the goaltending situation in Carolina, it becomes increasingly obvious that Nedeljkovic may very well be their best option. Mrazek is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer and, while he’s had some great moments as the Canes’ starter over the past three seasons, has faced some inconsistency and some injury concerns, which could complicate things moving forward. Reimer is also an impending UFA, and he’s 33 years old. At this stage of his career, he’s a backup at best, and from a viewer’s standpoint, it seems unlikely that he’d be brought back next season.
Beyond that, a quick skim through the team’s goaltending pipeline doesn’t provide any solutions. Eetu Mäkiniemi may be their most talented prospect in the long-term, but he’s scheduled to be a free agent on June 1st, 2021, so the Canes need to actually sign him before he can be considered as part of the plan. And he’s still quite a ways away. Jack LaFontaine had a super successful season at the University of Minnesota but elected to return to school, and his overall future is very unclear. Pyotr Kochetkov was a top draft choice and has some hype but has struggled to seize any kind of a role over in Russia. Beyond them, the trio of Beck Warm, Jeremy Helvig, and Jake Kucharski round out the system, but we’re years away from knowing if these guys even have NHL talent.
With the way things are trending, Nedeljkovic is set to be a restricted free agent (with arbitration rights) this summer and will be the only NHL goaltender in the Canes’ control if neither Mrazek, Reimer, or Antoine Bibeau are re-signed before free agency opens. The team also doesn’t necessarily have to commit to him long-term if they’re unsure about his trajectory. Considering his lack of an NHL track record, the team could very well opt to play hardball and push to give him a one-year deal and let him prove himself next season with a longer sample size. Anything longer than a one-year deal would make Ned a UFA on expiry, so it’s likely the Canes opt for just one year or instead just go for the long-term here (if they’re sold on him).
Regardless, I don’t think there’s any doubt left in anybody’s mind that Nedeljkovic has earned his place in the crease and a place in the organization moving forward. He’s waited patiently for his opportunity and succeeded at every level while doing so and has now emerged as one of the best goalies (statistically) in hockey this season. It’s impossible not to root for a guy like him, and he’s the ultimate example of the phrase “good things happen to those who wait.”
It’s fascinating to imagine how things will play out in the Canes’ crease this summer. Nedeljkovic seems like an absolute certainty to be back in the mix next season and in contention for the starting role, but who may be alongside him?
I personally feel like a tandem of Nedeljkovic and Mrazek would be phenomenal, although you may see Rod Brind’Amour visibly aging by the game if he’s subjected to watching those two wander for the puck every night. But it’s hard not to marvel at the upside of that potential duo. On the other side, the Canes could opt to pair Ned up with the safer, calmer Reimer, although he has had some inconsistencies of his own this season. Their final option would be taking a look into free agency, but the goalie market is shaping up to be slim pickings this summer, and I’m not sure they’ll find a better option than Mrazek or Reimer in that group.
Regardless of what route they choose to go, the Canes should feel confident in the ability that Nedeljkovic’s shown thus far and continued success this season (as well as the potential of a playoff run as a starter?) should solidify their belief in him all that much more. The team hasn’t had a true “franchise” goalie since pre-2013 Cam Ward, and while Ned still has a lot of work to do, he’s shown some serious signs of optimism that he could be the next one.