“Ned will bounce back.”
That was the mantra throughout the 2018-19 season. Anytime there was a slight bump in the road, it was followed by a steadfast belief that Alex Nedeljkovic would rebound. That’s not an uncommon thing for a coach to say publicly to the media, but what is uncommon is the way Nedeljkovic backed up that confidence.
Nedeljkovic didn’t lose consecutive games in regulation all season.
“Coming into the year we talked about how we wanted him to be consistent and not let things affect him,” said then head coach Mike Vellucci. “So if he had a game where he gave up a goal that he wasn’t happy about he wouldn’t dwell on it, he would put it behind him and play better the next game. This year he always had a great bounce back.”
That trait didn’t come overnight for the 23-year-old. Nedeljkovic pushed through a tough rookie campaign in 2016-17 that saw him spend time in the ECHL before turning over a new leaf in 2017-18 with a very strong sophomore showing. That wasn’t the end of the netminder’s transformation, though.
“At the end of last season in our interviews with Mike, it was all about being consistent,” said Nedeljkovic. “I thought each year I’ve taken a big step.”
His big step that offseason included refining one of the toughest aspects of a goalie’s game.
“For me it’s always going to be about the mental side of the game,” said Nedeljkovic. “I think that’s what it’s all been about since day one. Being able to take every day as a new day. It takes so much mentally to play or practice every day.”
The result was a transcendent season that saw Nedeljkovic rack up the personal accolades and lead his squad to a Calder Cup, all while building up the confidence of those around him.
“As a goalie in any league, it’s so much more pressure mentally than any other position and you need someone in your corner,” said Nedeljkovic. “You need to know that if you have a bad night, you’re going to be able to bounce back the next night. I think the coaches were able to look at me and say ‘It wasn’t your night, but tomorrow is going to be your night.’ To have them feel that way and have that confidence in me, it’s so helpful to my game.”
While the mental aspect of Nedeljkovic’s game has grown exponentially throughout his pro career, it’s not the only thing propelling his rapid ascension.
“Ned is one of the hardest workers I know,” said Vellucci. “From working with the goalie coaches to analyzing his game to getting into the weight room. I remember when he was a 16-year-old kid he wasn’t in great shape, just like any 16-year-old kid, but he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point. I know he’ll take a week or two and he’ll be right back in the weight room getting ready for next year. He’s a very mature player.”
After conquering essentially every honor the AHL has to offer – Most Outstanding Goalie, First-Team All Star, league wins leader, league goals-against average leader, Calder Cup champ – the next step for Nedeljkovic is the biggest thus far – making the NHL.
Nedeljkovic inked a new two-year contract with the Canes in June, a two-way deal that turns into a one-way in the second year. Even with Petr Mrazek and newcomer James Reimer in the fold, this appears to be the young netminder’s prime shot at securing an NHL job – with Canes GM Don Waddell saying that they “expect him to contend for a roster spot with the Hurricanes in training camp.” Nedeljkovic, though, doesn’t seem to be sweating it.
“I think the last few years we’ve all grown and taken steps forward in our careers,” said Nedeljkovic. “I can only control what I do on the ice, the decision to stay in the NHL or come back and play more games in the American League, that’s up to some higher powers than myself. It’s going to be a fun summer of training and getting ready to go and hopefully trying to win again next year.”
Wherever he ends up, the mentality will remain the same. Ned will bounce back.