Alex Nedeljkovic’s pro career has been a tale of two seasons.
As a rookie in 2016-17, the netminder endured a tough go, registering a goals-against average north of three and a save percentage south of .900 and finishing the year in the ECHL as veteran Tom McCollum was brought in to take hold of the starting job down the stretch.
This season, Nedeljkovic left no doubts of who the number one goalie was right from the start.
“I won my first seven games and then lost one and then won my next seven,” said Nedeljkovic. “So it was pretty fun. I thought it went a bit better.”
That hot start was no fluke, as Nedeljkovic would go on to establish himself as a top goaltender around the league, skyrocketing his individual numbers across the board and setting a franchise record in wins.
So what was it that changed from year one to year two?
An easy guess would be a tweak to his playing style, but he shut that notion down immediately.
“No, I think I tried to play the same way I played last year and the year before that,” said Nedeljkovic. “It’s what’s gotten me to this point. That’s the reason I’ve gotten this far. Until that stops working, I’m going to keep doing it.”
The 22-year-old points to a different turning point for him.
“I think it was more of a mental approach, just looking at everything differently and taking it day by day as opposed to worrying about what’s happening tomorrow,” said Nedeljkovic. “Anytime you can put away a bad loss or get over a big win quickly it’s huge. You don’t want to dwell on what’s been going on in the past, whether it’s good or bad.”
Another area of focus proved to be in the strategy of the netminder’s deployment.
“It was putting him in the position to succeed, both on the ice and mentally,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “Making sure that he was getting the right games at the right times and then once he got it I knew he was going to be fine. He struggled last year so he had to figure it out over the summer but we did what we could to help him do that.”
Vellucci, who coached Nedeljkovic in junior, has been the goaltender’s biggest supporter since his first day on the job, sporting an unwavering belief in what the young prospect could be at this level.
Having Vellucci behind the bench may have been as big of a catalyst for Nedeljkovic’s rebound as anything else.
“It was a really big confidence boost,” said Nedeljkovic. “I was comfortable in the net. I wasn’t worried if I give up this goal or if I give up two goals I’m on the block, so to speak. If I give up two goals, I’m making the next save. It was really comfortable and it was a really big boost for me to have him behind the bench knowing that he knows me and is confident in me and what I can do.”
Nedeljkovic would take on the bulk of the workload for Charlotte, logging the fourth most minutes by any goalie in the league. With his strong play early, he earned a trust from the coaching staff, even after down performances and with a formidable veteran behind him in Jeremy Smith.
“Every goalie has bad games here or there, it’s what you put up over the whole season,” said Vellucci. “He proved it this year, he bounced back from games that he wasn’t great in.”
For Nedeljkovic, the heavy workload didn’t prove to be too daunting.
“It was fun,” he said. “You definitely play more games than you do in juniors. I unfortunately missed the last couple of weeks there but I feel good. I want to keep going. It sucks how it ended, we could be playing still, but it is what it is. That’s how it goes sometimes, hopefully next year we can play a few more games.”
Looking around the Hurricanes organization, the goaltending situation seems as in flux as it’s ever been, seemingly opening up the chance for Nedeljkovic to move forward after another big offseason.
But even after a breakout season, Nedeljkovic continues to take it one step at a time.
“It’s always nice seeing an opportunity and making the best of it but right now it’s just about getting myself ready for next year and putting myself in the best possible shape to make the most of that opportunity,” he said. “Whatever happens over the summer is out of my control. All I can control is what I do and how much I put in off the ice and then when camp comes around how I perform on the ice. That’s all I can control so that’s all I’m worried about.”