A year ago, Alex Nedeljkovic went back to Parma, Ohio, for a hockey offseason shrouded in uncertainty.
When would the NHL’s 2020-21 season begin? How many games would be played during the pandemic? How safe would it be?
The Carolina Hurricanes then re-signed goalie Petr Mrazek in free agency. James Reimer was returning. Where did that leave Nedeljkovic?
This year, Nedeljkovic returns to Parma with his head a little higher following a season that could be called a dream come true. He ended it as the Canes’ No. 1 goalie — and he plans to be No. 1 when the 2021-22 season begins.
“I feel like I maybe opened some eyes around the league, or whoever was in doubt, about if I could do it or not,” Nedeljkovic said Thursday in a media interview.
Nedeljkovic did that. He is a finalist for the 2021 Calder Trophy, the award given to the NHL’s rookie of the year. He’s not favored to win it — Minnesota forward Karill Kaprizov seems like a lock — but the fact he was one of three finalists underscores all that he accomplished this season with the Canes.
“He’s been in the organization for a few years so he wasn’t a total new guy coming up,” defenseman Brett Pesce said Thursday. “But it was remarkable what that guy did. He’s so calm, confident in his abilities and nothing really seemed to rattle him, which is obviously what you need in a goaltender.
“It was amazing to see. He got that much better as the year went on. I’m just excited for him and obviously for the team to see if he can take another step to help us out back there.”
Getting the job done
Nedeljkovic, 25, wants to take that next step. He seemingly played this season with a chip on his shoulder, out to prove he belonged in the NHL and could do the job. Now he wants the No. 1 job, regardless of any offseason moves the Canes might make.
Nedeljkovic signed a two-year contract with Carolina in June 2019 that was a two-way deal in the first year and one-way in the second, in the 2020-21 season. His one-way deal was worth $750,000.
It turned out to be a bargain after Mrazek injured his thumb early in the season, needing surgery. The Canes placed Nedeljkovic on NHL waivers — he went unclaimed — in order to be placed on the team’s taxi squad. Called up, he played 23 games, going 15-5-3 with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage, with three shutouts, as the Canes won the Central Division.
That’s called getting it done.
“I never doubted myself at any point, that I could do it,” Nedeljkovic said. “I always believed I could do it. I just needed that opportunity to really show that I could and to kind of have that, not trust but to be given the opportunity to get a few games and run with it no matter what happened.
“The first few games, it was a bit of a roller coaster, up and down. I was able to play a few more after that, settled in, got comfortable, figured it out. Things kind of took off from there.”
Always looking to dominate
What’s next in his progression as an NHL goalie?
“I’ve always believed that I could do it and this year I think just reinforces that fact,” Nedeljkovic said. “Now it is not about just playing here and making a career out of being an NHL goalie. It’s trying to dominate and trying to be the best goalie that you can be and be the best goalie in the league.
“That’s my goal. That’s what I want to be. That’s who I want to become. I want to win Stanley Cups. That’s what everybody wants to do. You grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup. That’s what I want to do.”
Nedeljkovic doesn’t shy away from the word “dominate.” That’s what he wants to do in net. In the playoff series against Tampa Bay, he looked down the ice to the Lightning net and saw Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goalie in the league, a guy who often dominates.
Nedeljkovic wants to achieve that kind of stature. He freely says he shouldn’t have allowed soft goals in each of the first two games of the second-round playoff series. He said Vasielsvkiy, who shut out the Canes 2-0 Tuesday in Game 5 to clinch the series, refuses to give up goals in such spots.
Nedelkovic, called “Ned” by teammates and friends, said he has not always been the outwardly cool and calm goalie that Pesce mentioned, saying he was “something of a hothead” in junior hockey. But he’s grown up. He’s matured, physically but also emotionally.
“He’s not cocky or arrogant,” Canes defenseman Brady Skjei said during the playoffs. “He just carries himself with that confidence you need as a goalie.”
Nedeljkovic’s plans for the next few months are simple: go home, be with his fiancee, relax, play with their dog. Hit the gym, work on his game, hone his technique.
And, get a new contract.
As a restricted free agent eligible for arbitration, Nedeljkovic will get a nice bump in salary. But how much? And for how long? It’s part of the Canes’ offseason salary cap puzzle.
“You’re proud of that kid,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said this week. “He has been with us a long time, paid his dues and put in the time. It’s nice to see that pay off for him. Hopefully he’ll be a big part of us moving forward.”