Alex Nedeljkovic is a pretty laid back guy. But like anyone who becomes a professional athlete, he is fiercely competitive. If you talk to him about his dog, Zeke, a smile spreads across his face, almost as if the black lab is a reminder of the joys in life, no matter how tough things are away from home. But if you ask him about last season, his first with the Detroit Red Wings, a stark seriousness rests in his eyes and in his body language. While meeting with the media following the 2021-22 season, he did not mince words about his play and the objective for the upcoming 2022-23 season.
“My job is to stop the puck. Obviously, I didn’t do it enough this year,” Nedeljkovic said. “We were (second-to) last in the league in goals against. Obviously, that’s not good enough. It will be better. I’ll just tell you that right now. We’re not going to be in this position next year. If nothing were to change from how the season ended to next year, I’m not going to allow that to happen again. I hold myself to a certain standard and I didn’t meet that standard this year. Let’s just put it simply — it’s not going to happen again.”
In his first 82-game season in the NHL, the 26-year-old had a 20-24-9 record, a 3.31 goals-against average (GAA) and a .901 save-percentage (SV%). The cold reality is that the Red Wings’ defense did Nedeljkovic very few favors last season, but the former Carolina Hurricane also left much to be desired.
This – along with the expiring contract of veteran goaltender Thomas Greiss – prompted Red Wings general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman to make a familiar maneuver. On July 8, Yzerman sent a third round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for pending free agent goaltender Ville Husso, just two weeks shy of a full year after the GM sent a third round pick (and the rights to goalie Jonathan Bernier) to the Hurricanes in exchange for Nedeljkovic, who was also a pending free agent. After acquiring Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings signed him to a two-year deal; after acquiring Husso, they promptly signed him to a three-year deal. Together, Detroit’s goaltending 2022-23 tandem carries a cap hit of $7.75 million.
The move to acquire Husso places the same mandate on Nedeljkovic that Yzerman placed on every other returning player: improvement or bust. “Ned” said all the right things when he spoke to the media, but with Husso in town now, it’s not enough to just take ownership of a disappointing season. The expectation is that these two goaltenders will push each other this season, and if they do, they may very well give the Red Wings one of the very best goaltending tandems in the NHL.
Nedeljkovic Showed Promise Last Season
It wasn’t only Zeke that had Nedeljkovic smiling last season. While the second half of the season was unkind to the former second round pick, he was directly responsible for keeping the Red Wings in games they did not belong in, particularly in the first half of the season. While the following clip is an extreme example, there were plenty of games where your mouth would hit the floor while watching him man the crease:
Nedeljkovic also finished tied for the fifth-most shutouts in the league (four), an especially impressive feat given the porous defensive team he played for. On multiple occasions, he showed the ability to will his team to victory; good goalies don’t lose their team games, but great goalies can win games for their teams. Unfortunately, once the wheels fell off, things quickly got ugly. There was perhaps no better example of this than when former head coach Jeff Blashill, on multiple occasions, pulled Nedeljkovic and replaced him with Greiss, just to then have to reinsert Ned because the German veteran wasn’t making stops either.
This season, the expectation is that if Nedeljkovic falters, there will be someone waiting on the bench who is more than capable of righting the ship for the Red Wings.
Husso Embraces Opportunity with Red Wings
Husso isn’t as expressive as Nedeljkovic, or at least he hasn’t been in the few interactions he’s had with media since he was traded to Detroit. He comes across as even-keeled – an ideal trait for an athlete that plays such a stressful situation. But above all else, he seems like an individual who is just happy and appreciative for this new opportunity.
“…My agent called me and said that I [had] a chance to go to Detroit. I [thought] about it probably like three, five seconds and then I was all in for that,” Husso revealed in an interview with the Red Wings’ Daniella Bruce and Art Regner.
Of course he’s all in on this opportunity. Not only is it another chance to play in the NHL, but it’s a legitimate opportunity to nail down an increased role with a team that is searching for stability. With Jordan Binnington entrenched as the starter for the Blues, there wasn’t a clear path forward for Husso in St. Louis. In Detroit, the Finnish netminder has a real shot at becoming the Red Wings’ “1A” in goal. In order to do that, he’ll have to outplay Nedeljkovic – but don’t expect that this dynamic will breed hostility between the two goalies.
“He texted me right away,” Husso said of Nedeljkovic. “We’ve been chatting a little bit after that. I’m looking forward to [meeting] him first of all…only heard good things about him and how hard he works.”
The friendlier the competition between Nedeljkovic and Husso this season, the better off the Red Wings will be, plain and simple. With a combined 145 regular season games of experience between them, neither of them have cemented the reputation of being “go-to” goaltenders in this league. Both goalies will have their sites set on changing that fact, and that determination should go a long way towards pushing both guys to be their very best.
Red Wings’ Tandem Could Be Elite
When we talk about “elite” goaltending, we usually talk about the Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkins of the world. These goaltenders are the unquestioned number one guy for their respective teams, and they’ll be competing for Vezina Trophies for the foreseeable future. However, elite goaltending can come from more than one guy. When teams commit to using a tandem in goal, just like the Red Wings have, the ideal situation is that both goalies are capable of providing a quality start whenever their number is called.
That’s what the Red Wings hope they have in Husso and Nedeljkovic. Both goalies are young (Husso is the oldest at 27), and both of them are hungry to prove themselves this season; that hunger and upside is exactly what an up and coming team like the Red Wings should be betting on as they look to establish themselves as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference in the near future.
Both goalies were selected in the 2014 draft, both spent a lengthy amount of time developing in the American Hockey League, and both were traded to Detroit after experiencing breakout seasons. While their personalities and goaltending styles may differ quite a bit, they traveled a similar path to Hockeytown, and that common ground could be a solid foundation for an effective partnership between the two – even if they are in direct competition with each other.
The fruits of that competition should give the Red Wings average goaltending, at the very least. But if Nedeljkovic and Husso can both make the most of this opportunity, they’re going to give the Red Wings a level of goaltending that the team hasn’t had since their rebuild began. For a team that now holds the second-longest playoff drought in the league, that’s a very exciting possibility.