When the trade for Alex Nedeljkovic was announced, the chatter around Detroit wasn’t about how he could form a solid tandem with incumbent goaltender Thomas Greiss. No, the conversation immediately jumped to how “Ned” could be the Red Wings’ starter during the 2021-22 season and well into the future. After watching Greiss, Jonathan Bernier and Jimmy Howard man the crease over the last few seasons, it was refreshing to imagine the 25-year-old Calder Trophy-finalist arriving in “Hockeytown” and stabilizing a position that was surrounded by question marks prior to the trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.
We are now a little over a month into the 2021-22 season, and while it took Nedeljkovic some time to get settled in, his recent play leaves little to the imagination: he is now the Red Wings’ top option in goal. While the rotation of him and Greiss worked while the latter started hot and the former got familiar with his new team, there is no need for a rotation at this point. If the objective of choosing a starter on a given night is to pick the guy that gives his team the best chance to win, there is no other choice.
It has to be Ned.
Nedeljkovic is the Hot Hand
“Every single night, there’s almost no margin for error for any team, especially if you’re a team that’s looking up in the standings like we have. You (have got to have) elite goaltending every single night,” Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill said prior to the season in regards to his goaltending situation. With that in mind, let’s look at how the Red Wings’ goaltenders have fared over the last few starts and whether or not they’re giving their team “elite” goaltending.
Through his last five starts, spanning from Nov. 6 to Nov. 20, Nedeljkovic has made 147 stops on 160 shots, leading him to a save-percentage (SV%) of .919. Through 12 games total this season, he has a .914 SV% to go along with a 4-3-3 record and a 2.83 goals-against average (GAA). Among NHL goalies to play at least 10 games this season, he ranks 17th in terms of SV%. In fact, if you subtract the opening game of the season where he yielded seven goals on 48 shots to the Tampa Bay Lightning – a bizarre game that had everything except stellar goaltending on both sides – his season SV% sits at .923. It’s also worth noting that since that opening night catastrophe, he has only posted a SV% lower than .900 once.
Through his last five starts, spanning from Nov. 4 to Nov. 18, Greiss has made 148 stops on 165 shots, giving him a SV% of .897. Through 10 games, he has a .901 SV%, a 4-6 record and a 3.41 GAA. Again, among NHL goalies to play at least 10 games, he ranks 26th in terms of SV%. Using the same benchmark as Nedeljkovic, Greiss has posted a SV% lower than .900 three times just in his last five games. After stopping 62 of 64 shots through his first two starts of the season, he has posted a SV% higher than .906 just three times in eight games.
“We’ll go into the season, they’re both going to get a shot to get going and hopefully playing at a really high level,” Blashill said, indicating his plan to rotate the goalies early on, which we have seen come to fruition through the first month this season. “If one guy really grabs the job where he just looks significantly better than the other one…then they’ll play more.”
The numbers don’t lie: Nedeljkovic is playing significantly better than Greiss right now. It’s time for him to play more.
Nedeljkovic Brings Swagger to the Crease
What’s kind of funny about this year’s tandem in Detroit is that, when they’re both on their game, the two goalies look very different from one another. Greiss is a technically savvy, veteran goaltender that is at his best when he minimizes his movements and almost looks robotic in net. The more he moves, the more liable he is to let the puck get past him. Nedeljkovic, on the other hand, seems like he’s constantly moving. Whether it’s going out of his way to play the puck or making acrobatic saves moving from one side to the other, the second-year goaltender plays a style that is not for the faint of heart.
When Greiss is playing well, his technique allows him to swallow up shots, and if a rebound pops out, it often requires minimal movement for him to adjust to the second shot. He has made his fair share of spectacular saves this season, and many of them are a direct result of him leaving himself in a good spot to make the second save.
When Nedeljkovic is playing well, he’s a one-man show in the Red Wings’ defensive end. Whether it’s playing the puck like he’s Marty Turco circa 2004, or making sprawling saves where he gets just enough of the puck to knock it away, it is genuinely exciting to watch him play the position. It’s his eagerness to play the puck, however that really sets him apart from Greiss. Goalies that play the puck help spring their team on offense, and they take some of the pressure off of their defensemen in terms of playing the puck behind the goal line. Hockey is a game of constant motion, and goalies like Nedeljkovic speed the game up instead of slowing it down.
This isn’t to say that one style is better than the other – that is strictly a matter of preference. Part of the “excitement” that comes with watching Nedeljkovic play is the looming threat that he might leave himself out of position on the next shot. On the other hand, if Greiss’s technique fails him, he isn’t nearly as good at scrambling as Nedeljkovic is, and that often leads to a bad game turning into a terrible one.
What cannot be denied, however, is that as great of a fit as Greiss was for last season’s Red Wings team and their low-event style, this season’s team seems to have adopted a more up-tempo style, which plays right into Nedeljkovic’s style. His teammates feed off of saves like the one above, and his puck-handling abilities keep his team in motion. Those two things feed into the team’s identity, and when Nedeljkovic’s teammates know that they’ve got a goalie in the crease that has a ton of swagger, that helps breed confidence throughout the rest of the lineup.
Nedeljkovic is the Present and the Future
Above all else, there is the simple matter of age and situation at play here. Greiss is two months away from his 36th birthday and is in the final year of the two-year contract he signed with Detroit during the 2020 free agency period. While it’s not out of the question that the German netminder eventually re-signs with the Red Wings (the 2022 free agent class isn’t exactly overflowing with goaltending talent), there is little question that he isn’t part of general manager Steve Yzerman’s long-term plan – Greiss may very well be retired by the time the Red Wings are legitimate playoff contenders again.
As for Nedeljkovic, while he is on the first year of a two-year deal of his own, the thought in bringing him in was that he can establish himself as a mainstay in Detroit in the present and heading into the future. With 2021 first round pick Sebastian Cossa developing in the Western Hockey League (WHL), Ned represents the bridge between now and when the team’s top goaltending prospect is ready to challenge for the starting role himself. With just 41 games of NHL experience, Nedeljkovic has plenty of tread on his tires and a hunger to prove the Hurricanes wrong for turning their back on him this past summer.
This isn’t just about doing what’s right for this team today; it’s about doing what’s right for this team heading into the future. In a league where playing time is a precious thing, teams need to give those minutes not only to the players the deserve it most, but also the players that need it most. Greiss is fine as a “1B” option, but he’s great as a backup option; despite his struggles to start this season, the Red Wings can rest easy knowing that they’ve got a steady veteran like him on-hand if their starter is going through a funk.
But their starter isn’t going through a funk right now. He’s playing like the goalie we were all chatting about when the deal was finalized back in July. The only problem now is that Nedeljkovic isn’t the team’s starter, he’s their “1A” option – or at least that’s what his total of starts suggests.
It’s time for that to change.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.