The best way to describe Alex Nedeljkovic’s goaltending style is that he likes to color outside the lines.
Hockey is game of structure. Coaches like systems and repetition. Goaltending is about precise angles and technique. There are unwritten rules about when goalies should and shouldn’t handle the puck. That’s where Nedeljkovic becomes a non-conformist.
“There’s not a lot of guys in the league that handle it as much as I do,” Alex Nedeljkovic said. “I get pretty crazy sometimes. If things look a little weird it’s for good reason. It’s not normal to see a goalie in the corner two or three times a night.”
The Red Wings have struggled a bit adjusting to Nedeljkovic’s habit of wandering out the net to play the puck. However, the best indication that the Detroit defense and Nedeljkovic are understanding each other is his recent success.
Nedeljkovic riding hot streak
After giving up seven goals in his Detroit debut against Tampa Bay, Nedeljkovic is 4-2-1 with a 2.24 GAA and .930 save pct. in eight appearances. In three of his last four starts, Nedeljkovic posted save percentages of .939 and above. He’s been the goalie general manager Steve Yzerman hoped he would be when he gave up a third-round pick and Jonathan Bernier’s rights to get him.
“Every game you get more and more comfortable” Nedeljkovic said. “The start of the season, whether you were here the year before or not, there’s always a little adjustment period. Obviously, being new to the team, a little bit more than some of the other guys. Just trying to work out the kinks that come with the new year, shaking off the rust from the summertime. Every game I feel more and more comfortable. Game gets a little easier, you get into a bit of a rhythm, you stop thinking about things and just start doing them. For me, the less I think the better I play.”
Nedeljkovic appreciates that this arrival has been a big adjustment for his defensive group.
“Guys always being ready for anything,” Nedeljkovic said. “For me, it’s kind of learning the system and learning guys’ habits and tendencies and how we like to play certain scenarios. Preseason camp was great, really got to hone in on some system stuff, but now finally gotten 14 games under us, some live action stuff, because you can’t replicate that in a practice. That’s been great and I think we’re getting better and better.”
Nedeljkovic has always been effective handling the puck. He scored one empty net goal by shooting a puck down the ice in the East Coast Hockey and another in the American League. He has thought about scoring one in the NHL, but that is as far as he has gotten.
“I haven’t had an opportunity to do it,” Nedeljkovic said. “You can’t force it. You have to be smart with it. It’s such a high level, it’s that much a bigger problem every mistake you make. You really have to be smart and pick your spots.”
Nedeljkovic a Brodeur disciple
He has been playing this way since he was very young. “I’ve just always loved doing it,” he said. “I watched Marty Brodeur and Marty Turco do it a lot when I was young. They were some of the best to ever do it. I enjoyed it. I always wanted to score a goal. It makes my life easier sometimes, it makes the guys’ lives easier and there’s times I make it really difficult for us, unfortunately.”Coaches do put up a caution flag when they feel he’s over-doing it.
“I get a little excessive at times,” Nedeljkovic said. “Sometimes there’s those calm-down moments and we have to pull it back a little bit. It goes back to thinking too much. The more I start thinking, the more I start forcing things, and the worst outcomes occur. So, it’s trying to make the simple play, make a quick read and living to fight another day.”
He doesn’t lose confidence when he makes puck-handling mistake that leads to an opposition goals. He knows his puck-handling is primarily a benefit. Nedeljkovic can trigger a break-out with a pass. He can clear a puck. He can control it until his defensemen move into position.
“You’re going to make mistakes” Nedeljkovic said. “I made a big one in the preseason in Buffalo. The guys that are really good at playing the puck don’t let one mistake deter them from doing it again. Mike Smith is a great puck-handler, but he’s made some mistakes, obviously they’ve ended up in the net, but he keeps doing it because he has the confidence in himself. More times than not it benefits the guys in front of you.”
Cossa Needs Time to Develop
Detroit coach Jeff Blashill still sees the team’s adjustment to Nedeljkovic’s style as “a work in progress.”
“We’ve had a couple of mishandles that have cost us goals,” Nedeljkovic said. “It’s something that we’ve tried to do in practice on a fairly regular basis, almost every day that we skate do some kind of goalie touch breakout where the D have to spring back and be available and call commands. It’s still a work in progress.
“Alex can be a guy who can be a real positive factor playing the puck. I think (Thomas Greiss has) done a pretty good job of it. It’s something that when you’re great at it, it really negates the forecheck.”
Blashill said he has adjust his system “a little bit” to take advantage of Nedeljkovic’s talents in that area. “When I’ve had really good puckhandling goalies, it’s been a huge benefit,” Blashill said. “So we’re going to work to try to maximize it the best we can.”
That makes sense because Nedeljkovic is 25 and looks like the best goalie option over the next two or three seasons. First-round pick Sebastian Cossa, in theory, would need a season or two in the American League before he will be ready.
Nedeljkovic has reason to want to stay. He was living in the Detroit area in the offseason when he was playing in Carolina. This is a much better situation for him.
“(Wife) Emma and our dogs, they were never around full-time (in Carolina), they would always come and visit,” Nedeljkovic said. “She had school and work and couldn’t be down in Carolina the full year. So I had a lot of down time, didn’t really have any responsibilities outside of taking care of myself and making meals for myself.
“It’s nice now to be able to go home, see (my dog) Zeke, see her, spend time with her, have dinner with somebody else other than the guys. Get away from the game a little bit. When you’re on your own it’s real easy to think about the game non-stop. You have nobody to talk to.
“Sometimes you sit in your apartment watching TV. I love the game, so I always got NHL Network on and it’s hard to get away from it. So, to be able to go home now and just hit the reset button and enjoy life outside of hockey is awesome.”
The Red Wings still seem comfortable with the tandem set-up. Greiss has been solid. But Nedeljkovic seems like the best option should they decide to name a No. 1 goalie.