Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers Alex Nedeljkovic and his path to an NHL role given Canes crowded goalie situation.
Alex Nedeljkovic’s pedigree and history
Drafted 37th in the 2014 NHL draft, Alex Nedeljkovic’s selection was an aggressive move to add a goalie prospect with a reasonably high probability of reaching the NHL. Nedeljkovic had already established himself as a solid goalie in Canadian juniors before being drafted and had established himself as a player who always found a higher gear under pressure. After being drafted, Nedeljkovic followed up with two strong years of development. He posted more solid regular season numbers and more significantly showed big game capability in world tournaments against the best his age group and then also in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs. By the end of the 2015-16 season, Nedeljkovic had accomplished all that he could in preparing for a jump to the American Hockey League. But the 2016-17 season proved to be the first real bump in the road for Nedeljkovic. He struggled early on in the AHL and in total had a tough first season as a professional. Nedeljkovic’s 2017-18 season was not spectacular but he did make step-wise progress and at least build a foundation at the AHL level. That set the stage for a big step up for the 2018-19 season. Whereas the 2017-18 season was largely about Nedeljkovic benefiting from playing behind a great team, the 2018-19 season was about Nedeljkovic being the primary driver of his team’s success. Especially in the second half of the 2018-19 Nedeljkovic was the Checkers’ best player many nights. He followed that up with a strong playoff run that reestablished his reputation as a big game player. After a bumpy start in the AHL, Nedeljkovic exited the 2018-19 season back on track and seemingly ready to take the next step up to the NHL level.
The 2019-20 season minus the bigger picture and Hurricanes’ goalie collection
The summer has been a busy one at the goalie position. The Hurricanes brought back Petr Mrazek to be the starter and along the way added two other goalies who have the potential to figure in at the NHL level. In a masterful move, Don Waddell was able to offload Scott Darling’s contract in return for James Reimer. Reimer is a bit of a rebound play but at least has the chance to contribute for the Canes unlike Darling whose ship had sailed. The Hurricanes also added Anton Forsberg in the Calvin de Haan trade. I view Forsberg as a great depth addition at a position where such depth can be incredibly valuable.
The team’s moves no doubt impact Nedeljkovic’s role for the 2019-20 season, but I think an interesting starting point is considering what would be ideal for Nedeljkovic in the absence of these considerations. In an ideal world I think the Hurricanes would want to slot Nedeljkovic as an NHL backup slotted for at least 20 NHL starts with the ability to dial that up if/when Nedeljkovic proves capable at the NHL level. The perfect scenario would also offer the ability for Nedeljkovic to drop to the AHL level for more ice time and also possibly a confidence boost if his transition to the NHL level is bumpy.
The reality given the team’s situation and the minimum for Nedeljkovic’s development
The team’s situation does impact Nedeljkovic. I am on record as thinking that the team will at least start the 2019-20 season with James Reimer in the backup role at the NHL level if he is not traded before opening day. Such a start would give him the ability to rebound and possibly increase his trade value. If I am correct in this scenario, Nedeljkovic would resume his full-time role as a starter at the AHL level at least to begin the season, but the team would be looking for a way to get him some NHL ice time in 2019-20. So if Reimer falters or if an injury makes an opening at the NHL level, I would expect Nedeljkovic to not just be called up to the NHL but also to be thrust into action. A good outcome would be for Nedeljkovic to net about 15 starts at the NHL level in addition to a regular workload in the AHL. Even if maybe not ideal, that would be enough to take a next step development-wise and at least assess Nedeljkovic’s readiness for the NHL.
Contractual and NHL legalese considerations
Nedeljkovic’s current situation in terms of NHL legalese offers maximum flexibility for such a short-term development path. He is on a two-way contract, so the team saves money and pays and appropriate rate if Nedeljkovic plays in the AHL. In addition, he is still waivers exempt for the 2019-20 season, so he can move freely between the NHL and AHL without risk of being lost to a waiver claim.
But significantly, Nedeljkovic will not be waivers exempt come 2020-21. That means that the Hurricanes will need to keep him at the NHL level in 2020-21 or otherwise likely lose him for nothing. As such, it is critical that the Hurricanes be able to assess his NHL-readiness in 2019-20, so the team can feel comfortable slotting him as an NHL backup in 2020-21 when a return to the AHL is not as viable of an alternative.
The perfect outcome for 2019-20
The perfect outcome for the 2019-20 season would see Nedeljkovic pick up where he left off at the AHL level at the same time that James Reimer rebounds as a backup at the NHL level. Step two would be for an injury to make room for Nedeljkovic to get enough NHL starts to get his feet under him. Step three would be for Reimer to be dealt to a team in need of goalie help to make room for Nedeljkovic to make a permanent jump to the NHL level by the midway point of the season. That perfect storm would complete the series of moves to somehow unload Darling’s contract without paying to do so but still clearing a path for Nedeljkovic to the NHL level.
My two cents on Alex Nedeljkovic
Just like with any young goalie, Nedeljkovic is a wild card. The one thing I love about him is his mental makeup. He has the ‘it’ factor of a number one goalie. He has been at his best in high pressure international tournaments and playing for undermanned teams in the playoffs. From what he has accomplished at lower levels and also my read on his demeanor, he very much has the makings of an NHL goalie mentally. Especially for the goalie position, that is absolutely critical. My reservations with Nedeljkovic is his style and level of play. In limited NHL action in preseason, my assessment of him was that he was incredibly noisy in terms of movement which in general is a recipe for being too imperfect in terms of having a few small holes and also occasionally missing on angles or positioning. At the NHL level, that is almost always a recipe for being picked apart by NHLers who quickly figure out how to exploit even the smallest openings. Interestingly, I think the NHL version of Nedeljkovic looks pretty similar to Mrazek in that as a smaller goalie he will need to play an aggressive, challenging style that requires an emphasis on quickness and a bit of ‘scrambliness’ at times. In short, my last on-ice assessment of Nedeljkovic from training camp and preseason last year had some reservations. Based only on that, my best bet is that he would take some time and work to acclimate to the NHL level maybe somewhat like he did when transitioning to the AHL level. But since that assessment he posted a stellar AHL season and even stayed true to his pedigree and big game reputation in playing well in in his only NHL start in 2018-19. But regardless of trying to crystal ball the near-term and long-term future for Nedeljkovic he has very clearly reached a level where he needs an opportunity to sink or swim at the NHL level. And though the current situation could make that tricky, the team needs to find a way to give him NHL ice time in 2019-20 to further his development and provide a body of NHL work for assessment.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Based on his development path and strong 2018-19 season, how confident are you in Alex Nedeljkovic’s ability and readiness to be at least an NHL backup?
2) Given the Hurricanes current goalie situation, how would you managed that situation in total especially with regard to taking the next step with Nedeljkovic?