When Petr Mrazek went down with a thumb injury back on Jan. 30, it sparked the first real extended NHL opportunity for Canes’ netminder Alex Nedeljkovic.
Nedeljkovic, the Hurricanes’ second-round pick back in 2014, played four games in 2019-20 and one game in both 2016-17 and 2018-19, but had never stuck around with the NHL club for longer than that four-appearance stretch late last season.
Now Nedeljkovic has played in nine games in 2021, and he’s played really well. Nedeljkovic has a 2.08 GAA and .929 save percentage, and he’s presenting Carolina management with a really tough decision when Mrazek eventually returns; to keep Nedeljkovic or James Reimer with the NHL squad.
“The goaltending is so important,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour after Sunday’s 2-1 win over Detroit. “That positive is pivotal. You’ve got to have it. It gives the whole group a lot of confidence when you know your goalie can bail you out of some crazy situations or things that don’t work out. You make mistakes, the goalie covers for you, you don’t hear about it. So [Nedeljkovic] has been good, and I’m happy for him. He’s put in his time, so really happy for him.”
To his credit, Reimer has been fine. He’s 12-3-0 this season, though his results are slightly better than his numbers. He’s got a 2.71 GAA and .908 save percentage. Neither of those numbers rank in the top 30 among NHL goaltenders. He’s also certainly been the benefactor of some good offensive nights in front of him, as the Canes are averaging 4.2 goals per game in his 15 games this season.
And while Reimer is getting wins and playing OK, he’s also let in quite a few soft goals and hasn’t looked as crisp or locked in as Nedeljkovic has, especially lately.
Nedeljkovic, who hadn’t played a game nearly a year when he was called up, needed some games to settle in. He gave up three or more goals in his first three games, but since then he has been absolutely fantastic.
Nedeljkovic is 5-1-0 over his last six games, and he hasn’t given up more than two goals in any of those. His GAA is 1.50 during that stretch, and his save percentage is .950. He’s making great saves for the Canes and is putting in complete performances, showing he’s capable of playing at the NHL level after six or so years of putting in the work to get there.
Following Sunday’s win over Detroit, Nedeljkovic said he’s getting more confident which each game he’s putting under his belt.
“Absolutely,” Nedeljkovic said. “I think a lot of it too is guys doing a good job in front of me. Trying to give me good lanes and letting me see the puck or just helping me out at times when I’m leaving rebounds. Tonight was a great game and from the get go we were ready to play.”
Since joining the Canes, Nedeljkovic has been among the best goalies in the entire NHL. He’s tied for third in the league in save percentage among goalies with five or more games played, and he’s seventh in GAA.
He’s allowed 19 goals this season with an xG against of 22.64, and he’s stopped 60 of 70 high-danger shots faced. That .857 high-danger save percentage ranks 10th in the NHL among goalies with five or more games played, and is seventh among goaltenders with as many appearances this season as Nedeljkovic. On the other side of that, Reimer has a high-danger save percentage of .810, and he’s allowed more goals than his xG against.
Nedeljkovic has come up and played great between the pipes, and he’s earning his spot on the Hurricanes. The problem is that if Nedeljkovic stays, Reimer will be the odd man out. Reimer has a $3.4 million cap hit, and he was really solid with a 2.66 GAA and .914 save percentage for the team in 2019-20. Reimer also has the benefit of playoff experience and was good in the NHL bubble in 2020, but Nedeljkovic has the experience of a Calder Cup run in the AHL.
But along with better play, there are other benefits of keeping Nedeljkovic at the top level. For one, Nedeljkovic will be a Group 6 UFA this offseason if he doesn’t play enough games, as a 25-year old with three professional seasons and less than 80 NHL games played.
To keep Nedeljkovic a restricted free agent, certainly something the Canes would like to do, he needs to reach 26 games played at the NHL level by the end of the season. After Sunday’s win over Detroit, Nedeljkovic is at 15 games under his belt in the NHL. If Carolina keeps him up and he plays in 11 more games this season, he won’t be an UFA, but an RFA.
Nedeljkovic has been playing better, and he deserves to continue his NHL shot. Reimer’s done a lot for the Canes, but Nedeljkovic has done all he can to earn that backup spot once Mrazek returns. However for him, that’s not something he can worry about.
“It’s on my mind, but at the end of the day, I have to worry about what I can control,” Nedeljkovic said. “That’s coming to the rink every day ready to work and making it a tough decision for them. At the same time, I want to do well personally...I hold myself to a certain standard. Whatever decision is made when that time comes, that’s the decision that has to be made and we’ll just go from there.”