March 25, 2014
All Alex Nedeljkovic did this season, on a team with 15 rookies, was post a better save percentage for the Plymouth Whalers than Malcolm Subban did in the OHL two seasons ago when he became a Boston Bruins first-round pick.
While not a direct comparison per se, that might partially illustrate how far Nedeljkovic has come in two seasons as the Whalers' starting goaltender. The 18-year-old from Parma, Ohio managed to have the OHL's second-highest save percentage (.925) while facing the second-most shots (2,207). Nedeljkovic, who was NHL Central Scouting's fifth-ranked North American goaltender at midseason, led the Whalers to their 23rd consecutive playoff berth. Nedeljkovic has shown a prescience for tracking pucks that wasn't obvious two years ago, when Plymouth snapped him up in the seventh round of the priority selection draft.
"I think my big advantage is how well I see the ice," Nedeljkovic said prior to the start of the OHL playoffs. "I can almost see what's going to happen. I think that's one the biggest things you need while playing hockey. It just makes the job easier.
"What I want to work on, is being more aggressive," the 6-foot, 182-pounder added. "I don't like to play three feet outside my crease like some guys do, I like to kind of stay back, stay under control. But at the same time, it's something I need to learn to do."
The Whalers, who are down 2-0 to heavily favoured Guelph in a first-round series, have had a steady string of goaltenders who have been drafted by NHL clubs. None of Nedeljkovic's predecessors were leaned on as much at such an early age. Scott Wedgewood, who's currently with the New Jersey Devils' AHL affiliate, only played 31 games in his first two seasons in Plymouth. Nedeljkovic has already played twice as many this season alone while picking up the slack for a young team.
"He has a calming effect on our club," Whalers coach-GM Mike Vellucci said recently. "His conditioning and maturity level has got even stronger this year. He knew he was going to have to stop a lot of pucks this year so he came in like a veteran.
"Our guys are amazed by the saves he makes in practice and the way he finishes every drill," Vellucci added. "The next two years in our league, he's going to be one of the best."
Nedeljkovic, whom NHL Central Scouting ranked fifth among North American goalies in its midseeason ranking, modestly noted that it's easier to be sharp in net while being tested frequently.
"With 35-40 shots a game, it's lot easier in to stay in the games," he said. "I've just tried to help guys get adjusted to this league."
The netminder is also appreciative of the mentoring he got as a rookie in Plymouth from fellow Ohioan Matt Mahalak, who's now with the Kingston Frontenacs.
"He's definitely the only guy I probably wanted to be in front of me during my first year in the league," said Nedeljkovic, one of the three 1996-birthdate starting goalies in the OHL playoffs. "He helped me a lot in practices and on the road. He was my roommate on the road in the second half of the season. He made it easier and just showed me the ropes."
1. Which NHL goalies do you study closely?
"I like watching [the Los Angeles Kings'] Jonathan Quick and [Pittsburgh Penguins'] Marc-Andre Fleury. Those are two top guys right now. The way that they play is really fun to watch. Jonathan Quick's always in a scramble mode, it seems like, but he's making those big saves that bring fans out of their seats, while Fleury's making those big glove saves, stacking the pads or something like that. Ryan Miller also plays a really good technical game."
2. Who's the most challenging forward you have faced so far in the OHL?
"Connor McDavid. Whenever we've played them [the Erie Otters], even last year, I don't think there's ever been a game where he wasn't creating plays. Also, Michael Dal Colle on Oshawa. It seems like whenever we play them he's always got the puck on his stick. There's quite a few guys."
3. What did you take out of your experience last summer representing the U.S. in the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament — winning a silver medal with a team put together with players not in the NTDP (U.S. national team development program)?
"It was a really good team and I hadn't had the opportunity to go overseas and face competition like we faced over there. It wasn't the entire U18 team that we could have brought. I got to know the group of guys that I was with and built a relationship with them. That was definitely an experience that I'll never forget and will always treasure."
4. If there was no hockey, what sport would you play?
"Probably soccer. My dad [Nenad Nedeljkovic] was a soccer player when he was younger and I'd always play soccer with my brother and sisters and neighbours back home."
5. Where is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"Probably London. It's just so big and it's like a NHL atmosphere and they're always sold out. The Knights always bring forth a good effort so you have to be ready."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.