Since Feb. 9, the second-year pro has more wins (5) and shutouts (3) than any other netminder, while also holding at least a share of the league lead in both categories this season. Nedeljkovic is sporting a staggering 0.80 goals-against average over that stretch, a mark only bested by Grand Rapids’ Jared Coreau, who only played two games to Nedeljkovic’s five.
Needless to say, the netminder is turning heads with his performance. “I like the way that he’s playing,” said head coach Mike Vellucci of Nedeljkovic. “He’s challenging and not trying to do too much. He’s got confidence. He’s playing the puck really well.”
“He’s been doing a heck of a job right now, obviously,” said Trevor Carrick. “He’s been rock solid back there, and when he’s playing confident it makes us play a little more confident. Hopefully we can just keep it going and keep helping him out like he’s helping us out.”
Nedeljkovic started his sophomore campaign strong, going 12-2-0 out of the gates. While his record has stood impressively all season, the netminder’s numbers have fluctuated at times, going through their fair share of ups and downs. But as the coaching staff began to lean more on the young goalie, his numbers took a turn for the better.
“He’s played a lot of games in a row and I think he’s in a rhythm now,” said Vellucci. “That’s giving him confidence.”
Those strong outings have in turn helped strengthen Nedeljkovic’s hold on the crease time.
“The goaltender’s play dictates how much ice they’re going to get and how many games they’re going to get,” said Vellucci. “Obviously with his confidence going, you ride the guy who’s playing well.”
Nedeljkovic’s stranglehold on the starting job has seen him appear in 20 of the team’s last 24 games. But the netminder is prepared for the hefty workload.
“I worked all offseason to be able to play however many games I’m going to play,” he said. “Back-to-backs aren’t easy, but that’s what you work for in the offseason and that’s why you’re ready to go every night no matter what. The other 18 guys are playing every night, so there’s no reason that I shouldn’t be able to do the same thing.”
The flip side of Nedeljkovic thriving has been Jeremy Smith seeing less time between the pipes. He has seen game action just five times since Dec. 21, allowing at least three goals in each outing and being pulled from each of his last two starts.
Despite his struggles and lack of playing time, the coaching staff remains confident in their veteran netminder’s ability to return to form.
“I’ve known Smitty for a long time,” said Vellucci. “He’s going to bounce back and play well and do all the things we expect him to do. We just have to communicate.”
Vellucci has put a strong emphasis on that communication over this stretch, which included Smith serving as a third goalie at times during the most recent home stand.
“I’ve talked to Smitty about it a lot,” he said. “Even before we rolled with Ned, the plan was to bring [Callum] Booth in here for two weeks to work with our goalie coach and give him the opportunity to play a game. Smitty understands that this is a developmental league also. He knew about it so it wasn’t a surprise and he got to work with our goalie coach too and work on his game and his confidence.”
On his end, Smith has continued to be a pro in the room.
“He’s been awesome because we talk about it,” said Vellucci. “I let him know beforehand what was going on as far as Booth coming up and playing a game. Smitty would appreciate it if he was on a roll and was kicking off all these wins then he would be in the net the whole time.”
As the final push for the postseason rapidly approaches, the ideal goal is for the Checkers to have two viable options between the pipes going forward. As for who takes the bulk of the playing time, Vellucci isn’t overthinking it.
“There’s only two goalies usually on a team,” he said. “You’re going to ride the hot one. It doesn’t matter how old you are. We’re here to win. If the goalie’s hot, he plays. It’s pretty simple.”
DYNAMIC DUOA big part of the Checkers’ recent success in goal can be attributed to the strong play in front of the goaltenders.
The most noticeable numbers on the scoresheet have been the plus-minus ratings of Philip Samuelsson and Roland McKeown. Paired together for much of the year, the duo rank second and third in the AHL at +32 and +30, respectively. Add to that the facts that McKeown has nearly doubled his rookie season output in points and Samuelsson is nearing a career-high in goals and it’s easy to see the tandem’s effect on Charlotte’s play at both ends.
“They’re both playing really well,” said Vellucci. “They’re keeping it simple, they’re joining the rush at the appropriate times. Defensively their gaps have been outstanding and that’s the key. They’re playing in the offensive zone way more than their own end because they’re exiting the zone really well and they’re really not letting anyone in there.”
“There’s some room, I’m finding,” said McKeown. “Especially at this time of year guys don’t want to back check as much and their legs aren’t there, so I’m just trying to read the play and get in there at the right times.”
McKeown and Samuelsson’s gaudy numbers are a part of what has become Charlotte’s most consistent unit – its blue line. The Checkers have rolled the same six defensemen – Samuelsson, McKeown, Trevor Carrick, Jake Chelios, Josiah Didier and Brenden Kichton – almost exclusively since early December (the odd-man-out has been Dennis Robertson, who has played just seven times since Dec. 8).
“Anytime you get to play a bunch of consecutive games with a guy you start to really figure out how they play and all their little nuances,” said Samuelsson earlier this season. “Me and Rollie have played together most of this year and we’ve kind of grown together as a pair and I think we’ve done a good job out there, we’ve been playing against some top lines.”
That level of familiarity game-in and game-out has proved to be quite the boost for the unit overall as well.
“If you can even out ice time, you’re not grinding a guy down for 30 minutes,” said Vellucci. “It’s so helpful. And it’s great that we have lefty-righty in all three pairs, it’s easier for the transition and plays like that. Spreading the ice time out is huge and when you’re playing so many games in so many nights, it’s very helpful.”
HIGHS AND LOWSAfter some high-scoring, lopsided affairs, the Checkers engaged in a pair of tightly contested tilts against Syracuse last weekend that both players and coaches described as playoff-esque. While the final result was a series split, the lessons learned over those two games could come in handy later on down the line.
“The teaching is getting in those games and understanding what you have to do,” said Vellucci. “In a tight game you have to manage the puck better. It’s all a learning experience for the young guys. If you’re up a goal with four minutes left you don’t want to go for that crazy pass, you want to make sure you grind it out in their end and spend most of your time down there. Those are all learning experiences that you go through when you play. The more you play in them, the better the outcome. And then we’ll do a lot of video on it.”
The Checkers have run hot and cold at times this season, capable of firing off seven goals on one night but struggling to find the back of the net at all the next.
“It depends on a lot of things,” said Vellucci of his team’s varied offensive output. “If the other goalie is hot, if we’re getting a lot of power-play chances because a lot of our goals have come there. So it depends on the game.”
Moving forward, the key for the Checkers will be tapping into the middle of those extremes consistently, something the coaching staff is aiming to help with.
“We’re a young team and when you’re a young team you have too many highs and too many lows,” said Vellucci. “When we start scoring early, we get our confidence up and we start making plays. When we don’t we kind of grip our sticks a little tighter. So it’s my job to loosen up a little bit.”
APPROACHING DEADLINEThe NHL’s trade deadline is next Monday, Feb. 26. Even without any blockbusters, deals of any size have the tendency to shake up a farm system.
With several years as an assistant GM in Carolina under his belt, Vellucci is familiar with the event.
“My job is to get them all to the next level as fast as possible,” said Vellucci. “Whatever happens, that’s my job. So if someone gets traded or called up, that’s my job, to get them to the next level. I’m just going to communicate with them and tell them to keep doing what they’re doing.”
With the team flying back from Bridgeport the night before, chances are they will have Monday off, and chances are their attention will be on the deadline.
“Once the deadline’s over I think everyone can relax a bit and not be under so much pressure,” said Vellucci.