After seven years of training, patience, and development Alex Nedeljkovic is finally playing like the goalie the Carolina Hurricanes always hoped he could be.
Since Petr Mrazek went down to a thumb injury on Jan. 30, the 25-year-old Nedeljkovic has been splitting starts with James Reimer. But in the month and change since the two have been in charge of goal, Nedeljkovic has outplayed Reimer and is making a strong case to usurp him when Mrazek returns to the lineup.
Mrazek has been spotty in attending practices over the past week, but in late February, Mrazek and head coach Rod Brind’Amour said they were looking at a Feb. 7 return date. That date has come and gone though, and he still hasn’t dressed, so he’s obviously not fully healed. Luckily, there’s no rush to get him back, because the Hurricanes are riding high on a six-game winning streak and currently sitting one point shy of first place in the NHL.
With Mrazek pegged to return in about a week or two, Reimer is looking like the possible odd man out. The Hurricanes now have three goalies at the ready, and one will soon have to sit, which means Brind’Amour will need to make a difficult decision between the young up-and-comer Nedeljkovic or the stoic veteran Reimer.
Reimer Getting Good Results With Bad Numbers
The Hurricanes didn’t miss a beat with Mrazek on the sidelines. They’ve continued to string together wins, posting a 14-5-1 record since the night Mrazek got injured. Of those 20 games, Reimer started 12, sporting a personal record of 9-3-0. While his results are impressive, his numbers leave more to be desired.
Among the 44 goalies who have played 10 or more games this season, Reimer ranks 28th in save percentage (SV%) with .902 percent, and 22nd in goals-against average (GAA) with 2.83. Those numbers aren’t terrible on paper, but they’re a bit underwhelming for a goalie who’s backing up the NHL’s third-place team. Reimer’s play was particularly shaky in February, but thankfully he had the aid of his teammates, who scored in bunches to support him.
With Reimer in net, the Hurricanes have scored an average of 3.93 goals per game. It’s a very different story with Nedeljkovic in net, who has only gotten an average of 2.88 goal support per game.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Reimer covers a lot of space in the net. Even in his butterfly, he makes himself look big. He’s positionally sound, but pucks often seem to find holes through his body, even when he’s in the right position. With 376 games of NHL experience, Reimer has the clutch factor to steal games when things go his way, but it’s not a stretch to say he’s been inconsistent during his two-year tenure with the Hurricanes.
With it being the final year of his contract, and taking into account the emergence of Nedeljkovic, it appears the cap-tight Hurricanes may choose not to re-sign Reimer in the offseason, leaving the door open for Nedeljkovic to dig in his roots and really make a push for it.
Rookie Nedeljkovic Brimming With Confidence
With less goal support and fewer opportunities, Nedeljkovic has gradually improved throughout the season and now holds a 5-2-1 record after he helped the Hurricanes to a win over the Nashville Predators Tuesday. Of all NHL goalies who have played at least five games, Nedeljkovic ranks 5th in SV% (.926) and 10th in GAA (2.21). Not bad for a guy who’s fought tooth and nail just to make it to the NHL.
A second-round draft choice of the ‘Canes in 2014, Nedeljkovic ground through his junior years in the OHL, a short stint in the ECHL, and four seasons of committed, hard work with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. Hurricanes fans have long waited for Nedeljkovic to ascend to the NHL, often touting him as the future No. 1 goalie. It’s been a strenuous journey for him, but his opportunity is finally here and he’s certainly not wasting it.
Success wasn’t instant – Nedeljkovic needed a few games to find his comfort zone and build some confidence. After all, he had just six games of NHL experience prior to this year. He began the 2020-21 season by winning just one of his first three starts, but since then, he’s won four of his last five while allowing two or fewer goals in each of those five contests.
He’s not the biggest guy – he stands at 6-feet tall and 189 pounds, and he plays small in net, but he’s found his groove the past few games and it’s evident he knows how to use his smaller stature to deceive shooters. His rebound control has also been much better as of late, and his agility and athleticism are enough to compensate for the lack of space he covers.
While Nedeljkovic is a pending restricted free agent (RFA), if he doesn’t play in at least 14 of Carolina’s remaining 32 games, he’ll become a UFA, which means the Hurricanes risk losing him this summer. That can be easily remedied by extending him before he gets pursued by other teams in the offseason, but it may be a difficult contract to negotiate at this point for general manager Don Waddell.
The ‘Canes are going to be in a bit of a cap crunch this offseason with Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton needing big raises. Nedeljkovic will be seeking an NHL-level contract, and that’s understandable because it’s to be expected that he’ll be one of the two main goalies on the Hurricanes’ 2021-22 opening night roster.
Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?
Reimer has been a backup goalie for the large portion of his career – or at best a guy who goes 50/50 in a tandem. He’ll be turning 33 on March 15 and his contract will be expiring when the Hurricanes’ season comes to conclusion. But, so will Mrazek’s. And that’s where the decisions will have to be made because the Hurricanes can’t keep both when they return to the ice next season.
For the Hurricanes to release Nedeljkovic would be insanity. Even ignoring how good he’s looked in a small sample this season, you don’t release a goalie you’ve put seven years into developing at this point. “Ned” has earned a spot on next year’s roster, even if it’s going to be in a backup capacity.
Mrazek (29) is four years younger than Reimer and has also proven to be the steadier of the two, even for a goalie as erratic and flashy as Mrazek’s playstyle has him be. Unfortunately, he’s also approaching UFA status, which means all three of the Hurricanes’ goalies’ future is undetermined.
It may have been a question in parts of last season, but this year is proof that Mrazek is the goalie the Hurricanes should try to re-sign. He and Nedeljkovic will make a solid 1-2 tandem for a relatively cheap price, while the ‘Canes will have $3.4-million of Reimer’s salary freed up to re-sign them and others.
While the ‘Canes may still be in the market for a No. 1 goalie, I don’t think they’re afraid to go into next season with Mrazek and Nedeljkovic between the pipes unless things seriously fall of the rails.
Trading Reimer is also an option if Mrazek returns in full form. Reimer could be goalie insurance for teams dealing with injured netminders that are desperate for support. However, there’s nothing wrong with holding three goalies through the rest of the season and see how things play out. Reimer and Mrazek both have a long history with injuries, and having three goalies who can eat up minutes and fill in for each other when needed is a massive luxury.
But with all that said, even if all three remain healthy through the rest of the season, “Ned” should play. After all the time he’s spent committed to the Hurricanes organization, it’s time for them to let him grow into the goalie they’ve always wanted him to be.