The Hurricanes entered the 2020-21 season with goalie prospect Alex Nedeljkovic ready for an audition at the NHL level but also with it unclear if/how that would happen with two veteran goalies on the depth chart above him. When the team took the chance sending him across waivers to reach the taxi squad versus keeping three goalies and the cap hit at the NHL level, the potential was there for Nedeljkovic’s chance never to happen in a Hurricanes uniform. But Nedeljkovic cleared waivers and Petr Mrazek’s injury created the opening for Nedeljkovic to get a run of games at the NHL level.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at Alex Nedeljkovic’s audition through six games.
Especially if one considers the first couple games to be a tune up after not playing in a game for nearly a year and with no preseason games to get up to speed, Nedeljkovic has been good so far. Even counting the first two games that were his weakest, Nedeljkovic now sports a 2.30 goals against average and .924 save percentage to go with a 3-2-1 record. If one gives him a pass on three tune up games after a long layoff, Nedeljkovic’s save percentage in his last three starts is .959.
Looking at his body of work in total, he has been good overall. Areas to watch for improvement are his ability to close out games in the third period in his first three starts, he struggled a bit late in games. The other area where he has looked to be in a bit over his head has been defending breakaways. Those are tough on any goalie, but Nedeljkovic has had a few players work him over fairly easily. Interestingly, he fared well in the shootout.
Strengths include his comfort and confidence playing the puck and more generally just settling in and being reliable making the vast majority of saves where he has a chance.
The here and now
Ice time for the current duo
No doubt Nedeljkovic has earned his share of ice time in being the better of the two available goalies in recent play. Based on that, some are looking for some kind of affirmation that Nedeljkovic is now the #1 goalie at least until Petr Mrazek returns. That does not make a ton of sense within the context of how Brind’Amour has (successfully) managed goalies in his two plus years as head coach. He has regularly used both goalies starting the same goalie in both halves of a back-to-back only once. And he has steered clear of caring too much to rank and re-rank his goalie tandem based on whatever happened in the past couple days. The schedule is busy enough that there is room for two goalies, and the Hurricanes current position in the standings takes away the need to try to ride a hot hand out of desperation. In addition, I think just letting Nedeljkovic ride his current momentum without any extra pressure is the best path anyway. So I think those looking for some kind of official announcement or volume of play anointing Nedeljkovic the #1 will likely be disappointed simply because that is not how Brind’Amour does it. But Nedeljkovic will continue to receive enough starts in a rotation to keep building on what he has done so far.
Ice time when Petr Mrazek returns
More interesting will be seeing what happens when Mrazek returns is Nedeljkovic maintains his current trajectory. Nedeljkovic has been the better of the two in recent games by enough of a margin that it matters. It would be odd not to keep Nedeljkovic in the mix as long as he is playing well. How exactly that happens will be interesting. I could see the Hurricanes carrying three goalies at the NHL level. With the deemphasis on practices because of the compressed schedule, the issue of three goalies and only two nets is downplayed. Giving goalies days off from practice or maybe just lighter workloads makes sense. And with the volume of games, it might even be possible to allocate starts to three goalies. Further, it is questionable whether the Canes could return Nedeljkovic to the taxi squad anyway. (See below.) An alternative would be to put Reimer on waivers with the aim of assigning him to the taxi squad. He would only be of interest to a team looking for veteran goalie help and able to fit $3.4 million into their salary cap, so like Nedeljkovic he might or might not clear waivers.
Just before the start of the season, the Hurricanes risked losing Nedeljkovic for nothing when the team placed him on waivers to be sent to the taxi squad on his AHL contract. My thinking at the time was that a team that was likely to be rebuilding in 2020-21 anyway might take the free flyer on a young goalie with a good draft and AHL pedigree despite minimal NHL experience. The team’s risk paid off in the form of salary cap savings, when Nedeljkovic cleared waivers. The question now is whether he has done enough in a couple quality starts for a team to claim him this time around. In addition to Nedeljkovic’s strong play, albeit in a very small sample size, now 20ish games into a 56-game season, there are at least a few teams unofficially building for the future. Might one of those teams be willing to take a free flyer on Nedeljkovic based on the chance of netting a future starter for nothing in return? That is the question. I was wrong the first time, but I will double down and say that if he hits waivers that this time Nedeljkovic gets claimed, and based on that, my guess is that the Hurricanes will not risk waivers a second time. The only real negative to keep Nedeljkovic on the NHL roster is the salary cap hit. With the salary cut trading Ryan Dzingel for Cedric Paquette, the Hurricanes salary cap situation is not quite as tight as it was when the season started.
Looking forward to 2021-22
I wrote previously that Nedeljkovic and his play in 2020-21 could play a significant role in making the salary cap math work for 2021-22 and beyond. With Andrei Svechnikov due to get a sizable raise next season also the potential of re-signing Dougie Hamilton, the Hurricanes will need to do some mathematical gymnastics to maintain the current team, possibly try to make a targeted upgrade and stay under the salary cap ceiling. Entering the 2020-21 season the Hurricanes had $6.5 million of salary split almost equally between Mrazek and Reimer with both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer. Nedeljkovic is a restricted free agent and unlikely to earn too much more than his current $737,500 salary unless he goes on a huge run and seizes the #1 slot permanently. Nedeljkovic building confidence in his ability to be at least a serviceable #2 goalie would pave the way to let Reimer leave to free agency. At that point, the Hurricanes would have a backup in tow for about $1 million and could spend up to $5.5 million on a starter without increasing the goalie budget as compared to this season. That in itself would be a sizable gain for the Hurricanes in terms of making the salary cap math work next summer. And at the point the path would be cleared for Nedeljkovic to grow into a bigger role long-term if he is capable.
Netting it out
I started the 2020-21 season with somewhat of a conflicting viewpoint on Nedeljkovic. On the one hand, I was not particularly high on his chances of every being more than a #2 at the NHL level. On the other hand, I was strongly in favor of trying to get him a decent audition based on the unpredictability of goalies. And here we are.
While I do give Nedeljkovic good marks so far based on his last three starts, making any kind of final declaration on his viability and ceiling as an NHL is still premature. But sticking with my thoughts from before the season started, he has definitely earned more ice time even if it is just to validate his capability of taking the first step into a #2 role for the 2021-22 season.
I would not risk sending him across waivers again, and I would find a way to keep getting him starts as long as he earns them even if it means an odd three-goalie rotation for the month of March.
What say you Canes fans?
1) How would you rate Alex Nedeljkovic’s play so far in 2020-21 at the NHL level? How much stock would you put in six games or maybe just the last three after a tune up?
2) Especially once Petr Mrazek is available, how would you handle the Canes goalie situation?
3) What do you see as Nedeljkovic’s role in 2021-22 and ceiling as an NHL goalie after that?