by Kate Swartwout | AHL On The Beat
Alex Nedeljkovic has continued to prove himself as an elite goaltender and his reliable and versatile play has helped the Charlotte Checkers top the AHL standings.
Nedeljkovic has enjoyed plenty of personal success this season -– he leads the league in wins (27) and sits in third for minutes played (2,261) with a goals-against average of 2.41; he earned CCM/AHL Goaltender of the Month honors in January; he got his first NHL start and subsequent win; and he recently surpassed John Muse to become the winningest goaltender in Checkers’ franchise history –- and much of that success can be attributed to several factors: his insatiable work ethic, his precision when playing the puck and the confidence that Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci has instilled in him.
“What I like most about him is his dedication to be a better goaltender,” said Vellucci. “He works hard off ice, his training has been exceptional and he works extremely hard. He’s gotten himself in excellent shape and keeps pushing himself to get better.”
Nedeljkovic grew up watching Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco and realized that playing the puck can be an asset when it comes to releasing defensive pressure.
“My dad would always tell me, ‘Watch those guys. They’re not just throwing the puck anywhere, they’re making plays, passing pucks and putting it on guys’ tape,’” said Nedeljkovic. “It helps a lot. I think why we’re so good in our defensive zone is that if teams dump it in on me, the D have confidence that I’m going to make a play with it. They don’t get hit as much and we’re not spending as much time in our own end.”
The confidence Nedeljkovic has built over the years to be comfortable with making defensive plays comes from the long-standing relationship of trust he has built with Vellucci. Vellucci was the general manager and head coach of the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League -– where Nedeljkovic played his junior hockey -– and then assistant general manager for Carolina, where he had a significant hand in drafting the netminder in 2014.
“First, when he started at Plymouth, he was a young 16-year-old kid,” said Vellucci. “He was exceptional in Junior B so we brought him up at Christmas and he went 18-2 for us and became our starter and playoff guy.”
Being able to work together for so long has provided a unique situation where Nedeljkovic can continue to play well and gain confidence while simultaneously earning the trust of Vellucci.
“The bigger the game, the better he plays,” said Vellucci. “I have the utmost confidence in him. I let him know when I’m mad at him and he knows when I’m mad but he also knows that I have his back no matter what, that he is a goalie I believe in and I know he’ll make it to the NHL.”
“That’s what you want as a goalie out of a head coach, you want to have that confidence,” said Nedeljkovic. “You want to know that even if you let in a bad one or have an off night that it’s alright and move on because he’s doing the same thing. He gave me a chance to grow in juniors, gave me a chance to play my first year and gave me a lot of good chances to succeed. This year, he’s got the confidence in me to play every night or whatever it has to be.”
Exciting storylines seem to follow the Charlotte goaltender and many within the organization -– as well as outside of it –- are eager to see what will come next. For Nedeljkovic, the natural next step is to make the jump to the NHL and stick there.
“I think Ned’s an NHL goaltender,” said Vellucci. “He does so many good things from moving the puck to his hockey IQ to being a good teammate to being a good leader. He’s working extremely hard to get there and I don’t think anything is going to stop him.
“He’s going to get there one day and when he does get there, I think he’s going to stay.”