First up were rookie netminder Alex Nedeljkovic, a Calder Trophy finalist after posting a 15-5-3 record and 1.90 GAA, and defenseman Brett Pesce, who returned from a shoulder injury to play a full and productive season.
Conducted through Zoom, here is what Nedeljkovic and Pesce had to say in their exit interviews:
On what he felt like he personally accomplished this season: I feel like I maybe opened some eyes around the league, or to whoever was maybe in doubt if I could do it or not. I finally got an extended look. Obviously it was with [Petr Mrazek] getting hurt, you never want somebody to go down with an injury like that. Like I said, if an opportunity arises you have to take advantage of it, and I thought for the most part as the year went on I was able to get better and better.
It was unfortunate and never the way you want to end a season, by losing that last game, but I think going into the summer it’s kind of been that way here for a few years. Everybody feels like this team’s kind of taken another step and another step and another step, and just being around it a little bit in the organization you can feel that growth. I think this year maybe felt a little differently than previous years. I think there was maybe a little bit of a letdown, so to say, for just expectations internally. I think it’s just more fuel for the fire to get ready for next year and really try to take that step.
On what some of the biggest things he learned about being an NHL starting goalie were: I don’t know if you learn anything new because you try to do it at every level you’re at, but that’s just be consistent. Maybe the thing that kind of hits you the hardest is that everything, every moment is that much bigger. Obviously you’ve got 20,000 people watching you, you’ve got national television watching you. Every mistake you make is magnified. Not even from a camera and publicity perspective, but even just in game.
It’s so hard to score goals at this level. Goalies are so good right now. The systems that teams play are so good, and all four lines can play in every zone. You can’t afford to make one mistake in a game. A single mistake in a game is going to cost you. I think I couldn’t find a better example than game one against Tampa. I don’t want to drag on too much about it, but that’s a goal that can’t go in. That right there is just a perfect example. You can’t give good teams an inch.
On if he felt like he proved to himself that he could be a starting goalie in the NHL: You know, I never doubted myself at any point that I could do it. I always believed that I could do it. I just needed that opportunity to really show that I could and to kind of have that, not trust, but given the opportunity to get a few games and run with it no matter what happened. Obviously 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 and figured it out. Things just kind of took off from there.
Me personally, like I said, I’ve always believed that I could do it. This year I think just reinforces that fact, and 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. I want to win the Stanley Cup. The personal accolades and things like that are great, but nobody plays this game to be the number one point scorer every year. You don’t grow up thinking that, you grow up dreaming about winning the Stanley Cup. That’s what I want to do.
On if his calmness, collectiveness and humor affected others in the locker room: Well first off, I want to say that it hasn’t always been that way. I was kind of a hothead growing up in juniors and even a little bit my first few years as a professional. It’s not something that’s easy to do. You have to really work at it. The mental side of the game is tough. It’s a grind. More than anything, mentally it’s probably the most draining I think. There’s days where your body isn’t totally feeling it maybe, but you get a cup of coffee, some guys get Red Bull, and then they’re ready to go. But if your mind is not in the right space, then it’s tough to come in and tough to perform at a high level.
As far as rubbing off on other guys, I hope that kind of does. That’s what I try to do. I try to show that I’m confident in myself, and I hope that guys can see that and figure ‘hey, if Ned’s not worried about anything then we don’t have to worry about anything going on in the D zone and just worry about ourselves.’ That’s what you want. I think as a goalie you want guys to worry about their jobs. That’s across the board. If you’re a center, you don’t want to be wondering if your winger is going to get you the puck or get the pucks out of the zone. So, if I can make guys’ jobs a little easier and worry free, then that’s great. It’s just a game. You have to have fun. I think sometimes that gets lost throughout the season. At the end of the day, it’s just a game and you have to enjoy it because this isn’t going to last forever.
On his offseason plans and on if he has any specific areas he’s going to target to work on: Nothing crazy, nothing new. I’m gonna go back home and spend the summer with my fiancee and my dog. Just like I said, reset and refocus and come back next year better. Hit the gym. During the year it is tough to get good workouts in off the ice, especially this year where we played every other day for the last two and a half months. There really wasn’t much time to take care of your body off the ice and lifting weights and things like that. That’ll be something to kind of stress this summer.
But as opposed to trying to improve on things, yeah I think across the board you can always work to improve on things and look to be a little more consistent on certain things. Post play, puck handling, tracking pucks through traffic, just being more confident with your edges and skating. Stuff like that. I don’t know if I can think of any one thing right now to focus on more than another, just across the board trying to get better as a whole.
On how nice it was to play in the postseason again and on if he’s alright from the hit he took from Ondrej Palat in game five: I’m all good. It was a tough hit, but everything is fine. It definitely stings, but I guess from your perspective, yeah it was nice for me to go out and play in the postseason. Obviously last year wasn’t fun for me watching from the sidelines. I definitely appreciated it more for sure this year that I was out there battling with the boys.
On what the next step is for this team: I think it’s understanding that when you are out there you’ve got to play, I know it’s kind of cliche, but you’ve got to play every shift like it’s your last. Especially in the playoffs. We always say the margin for error gets smaller and smaller as you get higher in the rounds. We faced a great Tampa team. A Tampa team that also knew how to win and knew what it took. I just think we’ve got to be a little more detailed. It’s also exciting because we’re right there. The future is bright, for sure.
On what he saw from Nedeljkovic this season: He’s been in the organization for a few years, so he wasn’t the total new guy coming up. 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 even take another step to help us out back there. It’s exciting to watch him grow, for sure.
On what he learned the most about himself this season: That I really miss dinners on the road. It wasn’t fun in the beginning not being able to go out, and getting takeout. I don’t like eating out of styrofoam plates and containers.
On how much they can learn from disappointment: A lot. I think that kind of each year that we get knocked out we all grow more of an appreciation for the playoffs. You can’t take it for granted because you don’t know how much longer you’re going to be in there for and whatnot. You just really have to appreciate it.
I remember [Rod Brind’Amour] telling us three years ago, or whatever it was we got knocked out in the conference finals, he said ‘learn from this because you don’t know when you’ll be back.’ Obviously we haven’t been back since. That hurts. We just can’t take it for granted.
On his favorite memory from the season: Probably when we found out we won the division. That was pretty cool. We were sitting in the lounge and someone lost or whatever and we found out we won. Obviously it wasn’t our end goal, but we battled really hard. I think every game the boys came to play. We tried not to take games off. You’ve just got to tip your cap to everyone involved in getting us there.
On how his shoulder held up through the season: I feel 100 percent, for sure. To be honest I thought there was gonna be aches and pains with it and, knock on wood, but thankfully it held up better than I expected. Obviously I’m happy about that.
On if he’s anxious about all the UFAs on this team: Yeah, I’m anxious about all of them, to be honest. I think we have a really good group and a special group of guys. Not just on the ice, but off the ice the way we all interact with each other. I can honestly say I can sit down one-on-one with every guy in that room for a dinner and be fine and enjoy it. I don’t know if most teams can say that. But obviously this is where the business comes in. Hopefully they’ll be back, but we’ll see.