Alex Nedeljkovic entered the summer cloaked in high expectation. It was just one more thing to slide on with his goalie pads before every game.
His performances with USA Hockey brought on the hype. But that same hype may have weighed him down as he struggled this season.
Nedeljkovic, who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft, started off this year with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers. He called this season, his first as a pro, a good learning year.
The 21-year-old from Parma, Ohio, got called up on Jan. 16 to back up Cam Ward for Carolina’s game the next day in Columbus against the Blue Jackets. With Nedeljkovic’s family in attendance, Ward gave up four goals and got pulled. Nedeljkovic was thrown out against one of the NHL’s top teams this season.
The rookie got 30 minutes of ice time, deflecting all 17 shots he faced in a 4-1 loss. He was sent down two days later with a confidence boost from surviving a test against the world’s best players.
Besides away games in the Cleveland area, Nedeljkovic's family hasn't seen him play often as a pro. When he learned he would go with the Hurricanes to Columbus, he rallied his relatives.
“They were all trying to cancel plans and make everything work just so they could be there that next night,” Nedeljkovic said. “It actually worked out really well.”
“There have been a lot of good teaching moments for myself,” Nedeljkovic said. “You've got to take the positives out of as much as you can.
“I got off to a pretty bumpy start, but right around Christmas, things kind of picked up for me ... You just have to keep trending upward."
He tried responding to initial struggles with patience. And through that approach, he earned his NHL debut.
That showing with the Hurricanes was another strong performance on another prominent stage. While earning a bronze medal in Finland with Team USA during the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, Nedeljkovic dominated the January tournament. In seven games, he recorded a 1.66 goals against average and .943 save percentage.
Nedeljkovic was picked as one of the Team USA’s three best players of the tournament. Hurricanes coach Bill Peters, leading a team looking for a long-term answer in goal, only heightened the excitement around Nedeljkovic at training camp.
“His ability to control his body and his power in his lower body to get east-west, across post to post, is very impressive,” Peters said to the Raleigh News and Observer in July. “[He’s] just unbelievably athletic.”
It didn't start well in Charlotte, though. Nedeljkovic lost in four of his first five appearances. In his first 16 games with the Checkers, he notched just three wins.
But in those first games, he played in only three where he saw 30-or-more shots. He was sent down to the ECHL Florida Everblades on Dec. 28. Nedeljkovic said he needed the demotion for a chance at more reps.
Nedeljkovic (far right) and his teammates after winning bronze at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“Once you get to the AHL and NHL level, you stop seeing a high quantity of shots and start seeing a higher quality of shots,” Nedeljkovic said. “Sometimes you may not get more than 20 to 25 shots in an AHL or NHL game. It was good to go down there to feel the puck a bit more and make some saves.”
In two full starts with the Everblades, he allowed five goals on 74 shots. He was pulled back up to the Checkers on Jan. 12. He made his NHL debut five days later before returning to Charlotte, ending his three-leagues-in-10-days journey.
Nedeljkovic went 5-1-1 in his first eight games back in Charlotte. He earned his first pro shutout against the Rockford IceHogs on Feb. 18.
Checkers coach Ulf Samuelsson says the rookie goaltender’s transition is typical.
“He's just a young player that needs to play a lot of games,” Samuelsson said. “And he needs to realize that he is now playing against some of the best players in the world, and they can put the puck in areas most players in juniors can't.
“It's improving in a more-disciplined game, like all other young players.”
Nedeljkovic recognized the speed quickly. Adapting took time. He's also familiar with the most common knock on his game: that he is small. At 6-foot, Nedeljkovic feels he has the necessary tools to play at the top level.
“You don't like hearing you need to be 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 to play in the NHL,” Nedeljkovic said. “I just try to use it as motivation, to fuel the fire and keep pushing forward ... You want to prove people wrong.”
With his newfound confidence and still-budding form, Nedeljkovic thinks his patience is the cause of his recent success. He might be starting to trend upward at just the right time.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Tag(s): Men's Team Features