The Hurricanes head into one of the most pivotal offseasons they’ve faced in their history looking to take that next step to being a true Stanley Cup Contender. They enter the summer with a few items on their wish list: adding scoring depth, getting tougher to play against, re-signing or finding a replacement for Dougie Hamilton.
There is, however, one item from past offseasons that won’t be on the list. Something the Hurricanes seem to have already found, and should stand out as one of the biggest developments from this past season: finding their goalie of the future.
It’s something every cup contender needs: That true No. 1 goalie that can make the key saves, win you a game and you can build around between the pipes. It’s something the Hurricanes had been seeking for years going into the 2021 season. And, as it turns out, it’s something they already had in the organization in Alex Nedeljkovic.
The Canes spent the early part of last offseason exploring upgrades in net, but ultimately decided to roll into the 56-game sprint with Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, and Nedeljkovic. However, despite winning AHL Goalie of the Year and backstopping the Charlotte Checkers to the Calder Cup Championship in 2018-19, Nedeljkovic has shown little in his brief NHL stints to indicate he should be part of the club’s future plans.
He was, in fact, placed on waivers just before the start of the season and went unclaimed. After Mrazek, who had a stellar start to the season, went down with a thumb injury on Jan. 30, however, opportunity knocked for Nedeljkovic.
And, after a rough first couple starts as he shook off the rust, it’s an opportunity Nedeljkovic ran with all season. Nedeljkovic, a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year, finished 15-5-3, with his .932 save percentage ranking first among goalies with at least 11 games played, and his 1.90 goals-against average the lowest.
He was stellar for the Hurricanes, and eager to prove himself as he finally earned a chance to show his abilities in the NHL.
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,” Nedeljkovic. said. “I finally got an extended look. Obviously it was with [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.”
Nedeljkovic more than took advantage of his opportunity. The 2014 second-round pick’s play finally gave the team that goalie capable of taking over and stealing games, as he finished the year with 15.7 goals saved above average.
With rare exceptions, if there was a big save to make, “Ned” was there to make it, inspiring confidence in his teammates.
“Obviously he made some big saves and won games for us throughout the season, and played a great playoffs as well,” said Jordan Staal. “So he’s a very good goaltender. Obviously he’s still very young in his career. He can only get better, I think. I think he learned a lot this year, the way he grew, kept playing and carrying himself. I think his confidence kept growing. You start getting him in some more seasons, I think he can elevate his game. So we’ll see where he can take this group.”
Something that quickly stood out for Nedeljkovic was his ability to play the puck. This eased the burden on Hurricanes’ defensemen and helped frustrated opposing forechecks.
It even got him on the scoresheet.
Alex Nedeljkovic with a perfect stretch pass to Dougie Hamilton, who wins the game for Carolina in overtime. That's a primary assist for the Canes' goalie. What a finish. pic.twitter.com/Zt9LAZC1XF— Canes Country (@CanesCountry) May 2, 2021
Nedeljkovic’s play in the regular season earned him the net for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and he started all but two games. Nedeljkovic was stellar against the Nashville Predators, finishing the six-game series with a .922 save percentage and his first playoff shutout.
The Canes ran into a wall against the Tampa Bay Lightning in round two. That series proved a valuable learning experience for Nedeljkovic, as late in the third period of a tied game one, he allowed a game winner to Barclay Goodrow that an NHL goalie simply can’t allow.
Nedeljkovic knows that. He quickly moved on from it, but also used it as an opportunity to learn about the magnified importance of every goal, save and play in the postseason. \
“It’s so hard to score goals at this level,” Nedeljkovic said. “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.”
As Nedeljkovic heads into the offseason, his goals are twofold: re-up with the Hurricanes (that shouldn’t be an issue as he’s an RFA), and work towards improving himself to help push the team that next step further.
“I’ve always believed that I could do it,” Nedeljkovic said. “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.”
The path the Hurricanes are trying to chart, looking to take the next step to be a true contender, is not an easy one. But one of the most vital ingredients is having that legit No. 1 goalie of the future.
After Nedeljkovic’s play last season, that’s something the team appears to have, and it’s easily the biggest positive development this team can take from the 2021 season.