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Making Sense of the Alex Nedeljkovic Trade

The Hurricanes surprised everyone on Thursday when they traded 2021 Calder finalist Alex Nedeljkovic. Why did it happen and what’s next?

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Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Two Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

The first big domino of a big Carolina Hurricanes offseason fell early Thursday afternoon.

Shortly following the end of the NHL roster freeze, the Hurricanes announced that the team had traded restricted free agent goalie and Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a third-round pick in this weekend’s NHL draft and pending unrestricted free agent goalie Jonathan Bernier.

There’s a lot going on here, and we will unpack it, but it’s important that we go back well before the 2021 season started.

Nedeljkovic was a 2014 draft pick of former Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis. Then-assistant general manager Mike Vellucci coached Nedeljkovic for two seasons in Plymouth of the OHL and had high praise of Nedeljkovic’s abilities and had belief in him as a future NHL starting goalie.

After graduating from the OHL in 2016, Nedeljkovic spent three seasons developing as a pro player, reaching his peak in 2018-19 when he backstopped the Charlotte Checkers to a Calder Cup championship and earned the Baz Bastian Memorial Trophy for best goalie in the AHL along the way.

2019-20 was the first good opportunity for the Hurricanes, who by then had moved on from both Francis and Vellucci, to give him a shot in the NHL, a shot that would have made sense given how well he played the season prior. They gave him a two-year contract extension that offseason. Year one of the deal was on a two-way salary and year two was on a one-way salary. That, combined with Petr Mrazek’s deserved extension and the offloading of Scott Darling for a goalie they wanted to keep in James Reimer, essentially sealed his fate for one more year with the Checkers, likely followed by a big decision on his future for the 2020-21 season.

After a statistical decline for Nedeljkovic in 2019-20 behind a dramatically overhauled Checkers roster with a new head coach, that decision did come ahead of the 2021 season. The Hurricanes, content with their tandem of Mrazek and Reimer, put Nedeljkovic on waivers and risked any team in the league snatching him up for nothing.

No teams took the bite, though. Nedeljkovic went to the taxi squad as the team’s third goalie, and of course, that ended up being a season-defining series of moves.

Mrazek got hurt, Nedeljkovic got promoted, and the rest is history.

Before we jump into the trade, it’s important to note that the Hurricanes were forced into playing Nedeljkovic. Him forcing their hand and becoming the primary option came much later. The plan was never for him to start almost half of the team’s regular-season games and then nine of the team’s 11 postseason games. Had Mrazek never gotten injured, the season certainly wouldn’t have panned out the way it did for Nedeljkovic or maybe even the team itself.

The Hurricanes were a “victim” of circumstance. And to take it a step further, it’s hard to believe that they would have put him on waivers if they thought he was their goalie of the future.

Fast forward to now.

The Hurricanes reportedly landed on a $1.5 million AAV figure for Nedeljkovic, which is backup goalie money. Ned’s camp wanted $3.5 million AAV for two years, which is a very similar deal to what Mrazek got in 2019. He was arbitration-eligible, which meant that if they couldn’t agree to terms on a deal on their own, a third party would come in and determine a fair deal based on what the two sides wanted and league comparables.

The Hurricanes didn’t like adding that variable into the equation, so they decided to trade him. The offer they went with was from Detroit, and Nedeljkovic signed a two-year, $3 million AAV deal with the team upon signing.

Should the Hurricanes have paid Nedeljkovic?

Well, who is he? Is he the goalie who was dominant over 23 NHL starts in 2021 and played well in the postseason (albeit with a handful of very costly mistakes) or the goalie who had one very good AHL season sandwiched between several average seasons?

If he’s closer to the former, moving on from a 25-year-old Calder finalist goalie because you’re not willing to go to $3.5 million AAV over two years looks ludicrous. If he’s closer to the latter, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to commit that money to him.

Based on their actions, it’s safe to say that the Hurricanes think he is closer to the latter.

The only hope that one could have had for a change in mindset would be Nedeljkovic’s breakout year. That wasn’t enough for the Hurricanes, though, which leads me to believe that they had made up their minds on him and, realistically, nothing was going to change that - not even a run as impressive as Nedeljkovic’s.

Alex Nedeljkovic’s 2021 performance relative to other NHL goalies.

Nedeljkovic had the best save percentage in the league and a top-five 5-on-5 save percentage and goals saved above expectation. He was undeniably brilliant and certainly instilled some level of confidence in him being the “goalie of the future” that the Canes have been waiting for.

That’s part of why this trade is such a tough sell. After more than a decade of uncertainty surrounding the Carolina net, a homegrown talent finally made his way through the farm system and provided a spark of long-term hope, which is not to take anything away from the largely impressive work that Mrazek has done in a Hurricanes uniform.

After getting a brief taste of what that might look like with Nedeljkovic, he’s suddenly gone. Is he capable of being a full-time NHL starter? That’s really what it comes down to, and it’s almost impossible to know after 23 games, but losing that potential over a two-year, $3-3.5 million contract can feel like a gut punch.

He worked his way up the organizational ladder throughout the course of seven years, finally got there and excelled on a big stage, and was then promptly traded for a third-round pick and a veteran pending UFA who is likely nothing more than a fine 1B option if he signs with the team.

The trade itself isn’t good, but did they make the right decision to move on from Nedeljkovic? For now, the answer is an unsatisfying one.

It depends on what they do from here.

The Athletic’s Sara Civian reported that the team intends to find an established veteran goalie who can be a true number one. If they’re going to do that, it means that they’ll likely have to pay more than $3.5 million AAV. And while some will laugh at that notion after they traded Nedejkovic because they were $2 million apart, I honestly believe that the decision had more to do with what they think his upside is and less about the actual money. Had they been convinced that he could be that guy for them in the short term, I think they would have paid him and kept him.

They weren’t sold on him as a true starter, so they weren’t willing to pay him anything more than backup money.

That suggests that the team might take a different approach to their goalie philosophy. Ever since Don Waddell became the GM, the Canes have been a tandem team. From Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney to Mrazek and Reimer to Reimer and Nedeljkovic, they’ve had two goalies that generally split the workload before the better of the two took over most of the playoff duties.

The implication there is that they are now looking to pay more money for a true number one and backup money for, well, a true backup. If that was the plan going into the offseason, that would mean that they viewed Nedeljkovic as a backup (and offered him backup money as a result) and had their eyes on a bigger fish for the starting role.

Presumably, that means that neither Mrazek nor Reimer would fill that role, and they’re going to look outside of the organization for that player. Given how well Mrazek has played for stretches over the last three seasons, I suppose that you can’t rule him out, but a couple of months ago they decided that Nedeljovic was their best playoff goalie option.

The split-starts approach has worked extremely well for them, but if you’re going to try to make a bit of a shift, now would be the time to do it with all of your goalie contracts coming off of the books. That totally hinges on there being an option that is both better and attainable, though, and if you end up going back to the tandem thing again, trading the best-performing and youngest goalie from your previous tandem could end up being a big mistake.

If it isn’t Nedeljkovic, then who is it? Tuukka Rask, who seems unlikely to leave Boston and is set to undergo surgery on a torn labrum anyway, and Frederik Andersen (insert joke here) are among the most notable names scheduled to hit the open market. If you’re eyeing a free agent, what dollar amount is reasonable?

If nothing makes sense there, then you’re looking at a trade. John Gibson is the obvious pipe dream, but a guy like Darcy Kuemper is probably more realistic.

The Hurricanes made their evaluation on Nedeljkovic and they stuck to their guns on that evaluation to the very end. Whether that evaluation was correct or not is yet to be seen.

This is yet another example of how this front office negotiates its contracts. They determine a player’s value and they are very rarely willing to move off of their internal number. This has undoubtedly played a big role in Dougie Hamilton’s negotiations and it will continue to be true as they negotiate with Andrei Svechnikov and eventually Martin Necas, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Brett Pesce, and others. Though, in those situations, you’re talking about guys with more than 23 games of good work and the value of those players is much easier to determine.

Still, until there’s proof otherwise, it’s safe to assume that the negotiation process with many of those big names could be long and tedious. If those deals get done and those key pieces remain in place, then that wait is fine. If not, well then that’s a different story.

I don’t think that trading Nedeljkovic is the make-or-break decision regarding their Stanley Cup aspirations, but I think I would’ve taken the minor risk at that price point for two seasons and brought him back. While I call it a minor risk, it is still a risk given just how small his sample size in the NHL is, but this isn’t a Sergei Bobrovsky contract we’re talking about here. The downside is that he comes back down to Earth and isn’t the elite guy he was in 2021, but in that case, you still have money for another tandem goalie, be it Mrazek or someone else. The upside is that he repeats what he did in 2021 and you have your answer in net.

For the time being, Carolina’s first big offseason move has created more questions about the immediate future of this team. For an organization looking to capitalize on its winning window, that’s troubling. Their incoming goalie decision is a huge one, and if Waddell is serious when he says it’s about winning right now, then the team needs to get this right.