Alex Nedeljkovic answered two questions far more than any others at the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect development camp last week.
The first – “How is your name pronounced?” – he answered slowly and patiently each time: Neh-DELL-ko-vitch.
The other – “What’s it like being the Hurricanes’ goalie of the future?” – he looked eager to avoid, hesitant to recognize. Yet he couldn’t escape it.
The 20-year-old with a quiet demeanor and significantly smaller frame than all three other goaltenders at camp was followed all week by a figurative spotlight, watched closely by coaches and fans on the PNC Arena ice each day and by television cameras in the locker room afterward.
As a former second-round pick and the backstop of Team USA’s bronze medal run at the 2016 World Junior Championships, the attention was inevitable. Playing at the home of a Hurricanes team with the second-worst save percentage in the NHL last season also helped to intensify the focus.
But Nedeljkovic was quick to dispel the hype.
“It’s pretty cool to hear … but it’s just words right now,” he said.
He’s had little time to think about the future over the past year.
After missing his second consecutive development camp last summer because of labrum surgery, Nedeljkovic began the 2015-16 season needing to rediscover his rhythm after an offseason of recovery and to adjust to a new city after his Ontario Hockey League team of three years moved from Plymouth to Flint, Mich.
“There were a lot of moving parts,” he said. “It was just trying to find my game again, (trying to) get the thought of having the surgery out of your head.”
Loads of praise
Then on Dec. 7, he was traded to the Niagara Ice Dogs along with defenseman and fellow Carolina prospect Josh Wesley. Nineteen days later, he became the No. 1 goaltender for the U.S. in the World Junior tournament in Finland, where he recorded a .943 save percentage in seven games and made national headlines for several dramatic saves in a 2-1 semifinals loss to Russia.
And come spring, Nedeljkovic carried fourth-seeded Niagara to a surprising OHL Finals appearance, prior to which the London Free Press dubbed him the “OHL’s most consistently outstanding goaltender” over his four years in the league.
Not one to brag, the Ohio native called his opportunity at World Juniors “an honor” and stressed the role that the teammates around him played in the Ice Dogs’ postseason run.
But at camp, Hurricanes coach Bill Peters wasn’t helping Nedeljkovic’s cause, instead heaping praise on the netminder attending the annual event for the first time.
“His ability to control his body and his power in his lower body to get east-west, across post to post, is very impressive,” Peters said. “(He’s) just unbelievably athletic.”
In an age of increasingly large goalies, Nedeljkovic breaks the trend. At just 6 feet tall and 198 pounds, he relies on agility and reflexes to make saves, which he showcased with an acrobatic stick stop on Wesley that stood out as one of Saturday’s scrimmage highlights.
It’s a similar style to former NHL star Curtis Joseph, who worked with the prospects at camp after his recent hiring as a Hurricanes’ goaltending consultant. Nedeljkovic said he had watched the later years of Joseph’s career growing up and enjoyed hearing insights from the 943-game veteran.
Since OHL teams are only permitted a maximum of three 20-year-old players, Nedeljkovic will likely turn pro for the 2016-17 season, beginning the first year of a three-year, entry-level deal. But he said the team’s decision to re-sign Cam Ward and fill what could’ve been an open NHL roster spot wasn’t particularly discouraging.
“Mr. Francis has to do what he has to do in order to put a winning team on the ice,” Nedeljkovic said. “If anything, it’s beneficial for everybody else coming through the organization to be able to learn from (Ward).”
Although he’ll attend NHL training camp in the fall and could appear in a few preseason games, the young goalie now seems slated to join fellow prospect Daniel Altshuller – whom he played against in the OHL for two years and with at the Hurricanes’ 2014 training camp – with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers come opening day.
In the meantime, however, Nedeljkovic said he’s working to improve his lower body strength and prepare for the Traverse City prospects tournament, which begins Sept. 16. At camp, he spoke of his short-term, “day-by-day” attitude almost as frequently as he was pestered about his long-term role.
“All these achievements that I’ve been able to accomplish so far have been great, but they’re all stepping stones to where I want to be, and that’s to be a Stanley Cup champion,” he said. “A lot can happen between now and tomorrow, so you’ve just got to … control what you can control, and for me that’s being healthy, being strong and stopping pucks.”
All important prerequisites for the maturation of the Hurricanes’ potential goaltender of the future – even if he’s not willing to accept that title just yet.