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Parma’s Nedeljkovic An NHL Calder Trophy Finalist

Early into the 2021 NHL season, the Carolina Hurricanes placed goaltender Alexander Nedeljkovic of Parma on waivers. Any of the other 30 NHL clubs could’ve scooped him up for free but there were no takers.

Today, Nedeljkovic is one of three finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which goes to the rookie of the year in the NHL. Odds are Nedeljkovic won’t win. Russian forward Kiril Kaprizov of the Minnesota Wild was an offensive dynamo this season and if you check in at online betting sites like Power Play Sports, you’d see that he’s the favorite to win the award. Another American, Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson of Arcadia, California, is the third Calder finalist.

Nedeljkovic is the first NHLer from Ohio to be up for the Calder. Going from being on waivers to being considered one the three best first-year players in the NHL puts an exclamation point behind how Nedeljkovic’s hockey fortunes have finally turned. “I’ve always believed I could do it,” Nedeljkovic told Canadian Press. “This year I think just reinforces that fact.”

Nedeljkovic, 25, set Hurricanes franchise records this season with a 1.90 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. He also posted three shutouts.

Parma’s Nedeljkovic An NHL Calder Trophy Finalist

“Alexander Nedelijkovic” by NHL is licensed under CC BY 3.0

Arrived With A Pedigree

Nedeljkovic began his youth hockey career playing in Cleveland. He moved to the Belle Tire program in Detroit as a teenager and earned the No. 1 goaltending position with the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers at the age of 16.

“I just saw the talent from a hockey standpoint and then the work ethic and the determination,” then Plymouth coach Mike Vellucci, now an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, told Associated Press.

“He never quit. He battled on every save, so I just figured once he got the technical part down a little bit better positioning-wise that if he makes that first save, or if he doesn’t make that first save, that he had that will and that determination to make the next one or the next one after that.”

Nedeljkovic won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2014 World Under-18 championship. He also picked up a bronze medal with Team USA at the 2016 World  Junior (Under-20) Championship.

Vellucci was with the Hurricanes organization when they chose Nedeljkovic with the 37th overall selection of the 2014 NHL entry draft. He was viewed as their goalie of the future.

However, like a lot of young goalies, Nedeljkovic struggled to make the adjustment to pro hockey. Playing for the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers, Nedeljkovic was mentored by journeyman veteran goalie Michael Leighton, the AHL’s all-time shutout leader, who backstopped the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup final.

“These young kids come in and they just don’t know what to expect,” Leighton said. “It’s tough when you’re playing every night and there’s a lot of pressure on you to play good every night, and if you have a bad game, it’s tough to rebound sometimes and have the mindset of getting right back in the net.”

In 2018-19, Nedeljkovic was named AHL Goaltender of the Year as the Checkers won the AHL Calder Cup title.

Parma’s Nedeljkovic An NHL Calder Trophy Finalist

“Alexander Nedelijkovic” by Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP is licensed under CC BY 3.0

It’s Ned’s Net

A thumb injury to Carolina No. 1 goalie Petr Mrazek opened a door to the net for Nedeljkovic and he never gave it back. He backstopped the Hurricanes to first place in the NHL’s Central Division.

Nedeljkovic was 15-5-3 and tied for the NHL rookie lead in shutouts. His GAA and save percentage were No. 1 among NHL goalies who played a minimum of 20 games. He allowed two goals or fewer in 16 of his 23 starts.

“He’s grinded in the [AHL] for a while, got his chance this year,” Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin told NHL.com. “He took full advantage of it. We’re thrilled for him.

“It’s awesome to see him have the success he’s had and be named as a [Calder] finalist.”

Both Mrazek and veteran backup James Reimer are unrestricted free agents this summer. Nedeljkovic is a restricted free agent, meaning Carolina maintains the right to match any contract offer he might get from another NHL team.

Clearly, the Hurricanes’ goal crease belongs to him.

Vellucci doesn’t buy the late-bloomer tag that so many are anxious to affix to Nedeljkovic.

“I don’t believe Ned’s a late bloomer,” Vellucci said. “I believe that he’s been more than ready and capable. And it’s just a matter of when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.”

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