By Nick Niedzielski | AHL On The Beat
The Charlotte Checkers headed into the 2016-17 season with one of the most intriguing goalie tandems they’ve had in years.
On one hand they have Alex Nedeljkovic, a highly-touted prospect who is coming off a strong junior career and is entering the pros with lots of eyes on him as a possible “goalie of the future” for the Carolina Hurricanes.
On the other they have Michael Leighton, one of the most highly-regarded goalies in AHL history who has carved out an extensive career in the pros.
Leighton signed a two-way deal with Carolina in the offseason, reuniting him with the Hurricanes organization for the first time since 2009-10.
“I was talking with a few teams and this was the best offer and the best opportunity for me and my family,” said Leighton. “It’s a great city, great organization. I knew some people here so that definitely made my decision a little easier.”
The veteran was brought in with some specific reasoning in mind, namely the development of Nedeljkovic.
“The whole philosophy with bringing Leighton in here with Ned is his experience,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “It’s a big step going from junior to the pros, right across the line with your habits, your eating, your sleeping, your discipline. Now you’re on your own so you have to start acting like an adult.”
For Leighton, part of the move was coming to terms with the direction that the game is heading.
“I think at my age, to be an AHL starter is getting washed out a bit,” said the 33-year-old. “Teams are going with younger guys. I knew that just from the market this year, there were a lot of teams that wanted to stick with their young guys. I knew that coming in and I accepted it and I’m fine with it.”
That’s not to say that the AHL’s career shutout leader and ninth-winningest goalie has packed it in. Far from it, actually.
“It’s just about playing well,” said Leighton. “I still want to win and I still want to play well. It’s not like I’m here just to be here. I want to be on the ice every day and having fun. Whether it’s in games or in practice, I want to show these guys that I work hard and I still can play in this league.”
For Nedeljkovic, simply having Leighton around has been beneficial, especially after a tough first two AHL games that saw the young netminder take two losses in Texas.
“He’s a good guy and he’s been a great mentor,” said Nedeljkovic. “Every time we’re on the ice he’s got something positive to say, and that’s the biggest thing, staying positive. It’s easy as a first-year guy to get down on yourself, especially coming off of a rough weekend, but he’s found a way to keep it positive and keep things light around the room.”
“He’s been good,” said Samuelsson of Leighton, who stopped 14 of 16 shots in the season opener after relieving Nedeljkovic for the final two periods. “They ride to practice together, they’re talking. He’s really been a good soldier on the ice and a good leader off the ice as well.”
The obvious benefit of having a 15-year veteran with over 100 NHL games under his belt on the team is the sheer amount of firsthand experience he has picked up along the way that he can pass along to his younger protégé.
“I think the biggest thing is just to work on your game,” said Leighton. “If someone told me when I was younger to work harder in practice and work on things more, I think I would have progressed a little quicker. You’ll gain experience as you get older and the more you play, but just watch other goalies and keep working at specific things that you can get better at. You’ll see improvement right away.”
The 20-year-old rookie has already picked up on at least one thing from Leighton.
“The tendencies, like finding a groove and getting into good habits,” said Nedeljkovic of his biggest takeaway thus far. “Off the ice just eating well, getting good rest, things like that. And then on the ice just working hard every play. There’s always someone watching. So you just want to have good habits and good tendencies.”
Having two options of that caliber is never a bad thing, but now comes figuring out exactly how the team wants to go about employing their tandem, though it’s not as simple as it may seem.
“A lot of times you have a plan going into the season, but sometimes the play dictates what actually happens,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “So you try to find a good balance of your plan, as far as work to rest ratio and add the competitive part. You should get rewarded if you play well.”
After a bumpy start, Nedeljkovic is ready to take that competitive part to heart and move forward.
“Just be myself and play my game,” said Nedeljkovic. “That was the biggest thing. When I felt calm and relaxed things came easy but when I started overthinking things and I got in my head, that’s when we ran into trouble. But you learn from it. You learn more from your failures than you do your successes.”
As for Leighton, he’ll be there to help the team in whatever capacity he’s called upon.
“I’ve been a backup in the NHL and sat for 22 games at a time, so I’ve been there, done that,” said Leighton. “I want to play and jump in once in a while and contribute as much as I can. But like I said, I accepted the role I have, whether I play or not I just have to keep working hard and hopefully I get the chance to play sometime. I want to win.”