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About Last Season: Alex Nedeljkovic

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The 25-year-old put forth an impressive season and was a Calder finalist, but Hurricanes fans are left wondering what could have been.

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

Alex Nedeljkovic 2020-21 By The Numbers

  • NHL Seasons: 1
  • Record: 15-5-3 in 23 appearances
  • GAA: 1.90
  • Save percentage: .932
  • Contract status: Traded to DET, signed two-year deal with $3 million AAV
  • Calder Trophy Finalist

Another reminder of what could have been for Hurricanes fans. Nedeljkovic’s 2020-21 season was an impressive story. He started the season by being waived on Jan. 12 and going unclaimed, seeming destined to sit in the press box on the taxi squad. Petr Mrazek went down with an injury on Jan. 30th and the Hurricanes were forced to have Nedeljkovic split starts with James Reimer.

Nedeljkovic had a poor showing for the first three games of the season, putting up save percentages of .864, .897 and .892 while going 1-1-1. From then on, it was stellar performance after stellar performance. He recorded his first career shutout against the Tampa Bay Lightning and went on a four-game win streak shortly after. In a division featuring goalies such as Andrei Vasilevskiy, Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Driedger and Juuse Saros, it was nice to see Nedeljkovic stand out as one of the best. Nedeljkovic’s goals saved above average (GSAA) was an impressive 15.7, meaning that he stopped close to 16 more goals than he should have. That’s a bit unsustainable for a goalie, and there was a bit of puck luck involved, but it was impressive nonetheless.

Nedeljkovic was a major factor in the team’s success this past season and helped carry the team to victory on many occasions. A shortened schedule meant that Nedeljkovic was seeing the same teams all season long and teams seemed unable to figure him out. He had three regular-season shutouts and was tied for the team lead in wins with James Reimer, who had an almost identical record of 15-5-2.

Patience seemed to pay off with Nedeljkovic, who was finally beginning to come into his own after seven years of waiting in the wings. He played in the OHL for two years, spent time in the ECHL for a season and then spent three years in the AHL while winning a Calder Cup along the way. Nedeljkovic’s performance this season felt like the culmination of years of development. Finally, the goalie of the future has become the goalie of the present! Right? Folks, I’m being told that that’s not the case and to prepare for disappointment. I’ll get to that later.

Nedeljkovic was great during the Nashville series in the playoffs. He shut out the Predators in game two and had a save percentage over .900 in all but one game during the series. In spite of a not great team effort in game six, Nedeljkovic still pulled out the win. Nedeljkovic was also good in three games during the Tampa series, allowing two goals in each of the three games. He was rewarded with two goals for across those three games. That’s right, the Hurricanes only scored two goals total in the three games that Nedeljkovic started in. It’s not a recipe for success in the playoffs and is unfortunate because the Hurricanes wasted three solid starts from their goaltender when you can’t take a game off.

The Hurricanes started Nedeljkovic enough this season to retain his restricted free agent status. Had he not started in enough regular season games, Nedeljkovic would have been classified as a group six UFA and would have hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. That coupled with his fantastic performance this season meant that Canes fans felt confident in Nedeljkovic being the goalie of the future. He earned Calder Trophy recognition and finished third place in voting for the award. Nedeljkovic was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for the 2020-21 season, another tremendous honor for the guy that was looking like the goalie of the future.

Even when rumors came out that the Hurricanes weren’t going to qualify Ned, Hurricanes fans were optimistic. Why would they play him in as many games as he did if they weren’t going to qualify him? Nedeljkovic was traded to the Detroit Red Wings on July 22 in exchange for the rights to Jonathan Bernier and the 94th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, a paltry return for someone that is coming off of a Calder-worthy season.

The move shocked Hurricanes fans. Alex Nedeljkovic was not only a fan favorite due to his performance but was considered by many Canes fans to be the goalie that they had sought after for so long. After over a decade of Cam Ward, a revolving door of AHL goalies and Scott Darling, fans were ready to have a consistent goaltender.

This move still stings for the majority of the fan base, and for good reason. On paper, Nedeljkovic was the best goalie the fans have seen in well over a decade. And after all of the failed experiments in net, it was time for some stability. Sure, Mrazek and Reimer had been good for the Hurricanes, but they weren’t Nedeljkovic levels of good.

As someone that has covered prospects since 2016, it hurt too. Trading Nedeljkovic at this moment felt like seven years of development wasted. You invest all this time in a player and then trade him right as he’s playing the best hockey of his career. It seems to confirm the suspicions I had about the team never fully trusting Nedeljkovic with many starts. Sure, he was great for over 20 games this season, but his AHL track record is less promising. His best save percentage in the AHL was a .916, fine but not anything to write home about. His NHL starts in the 2019-20 season were shaky and not inspiring for his future performance. Is it reasonable to expect the Hurricanes to trust their playoff hopes on a goalie with less than 30 NHL games under his belt? Probably not. Should they have considered keeping him on as a backup? Probably, especially considering what they signed their other goalies for.

There’s always the chance that Nedeljkovic doesn’t work out and that the 2020-21 season winds up being a bit of a fluke. Goalies can be like that sometimes. There’s also the chance that he goes on to have a Vezina-worthy season and shuts out the Hurricanes in his first start against his former team. Regardless, Nedeljkovic’s 2020-21 season will serve as a “what if” question for Hurricanes fans for years to come. For Hurricanes fans, it’s seven years of development wasted and back to the drawing board once again in terms of finding a goalie of the future.

Poll

How would you grade Alex Nedeljkovic’s 2020-21 season?

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    A - Outstanding Performance
    (167 votes)
  • 35%
    B - Above Average Performance
    (99 votes)
  • 3%
    C - Average Performance
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    D - Below Average Performance
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    F - Below Average Performance
    (1 vote)
278 votes total Vote Now