After going unclaimed, Nedeljkovic has played his way into contention to be the Carolina Hurricanes starting goalie when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, making his long wait well worth it.
“I’ve had a few spurts here and there over the years of coming up (to the NHL) and playing in a few games, but it feels different now,” Nedeljkovic said. “I feel more relaxed, more confident, just kind of like I’m playing the game again. It’s been exciting.”
Nedeljkovic, who played six NHL games (four starts) over three seasons from 2016-20, is among an impressive group of goalies excelling in their first extended opportunities in the League after biding their time developing in the American Hockey League, ECHL or Europe. Nedeljkovic and Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals are seeking to be their teams’ playoff starters as 25-year-old rookies, as Jordan Binnington did when he helped the St. Louis Blues win the Stanley Cup in 2019.
“Always everybody is talking about experience and then he was a rookie and then he does it,” Vanecek said of Binnington. “So that’s good he showed everybody you can win the Stanley Cup if you are a rookie goalie.”
Although Kaapo Kahkonen likely will begin the playoffs backing up veteran Cam Talbot for the Minnesota Wild, the 24-year-old rookie will be a coach’s decision or an injury away from getting that chance. Chris Driedger isn’t a rookie, but the 26-year-old Florida Panthers goalie will also be looking to make his playoff debut, likely backing up Sergei Bobrovsky, after eight seasons of paying his dues.
Before this season, Driedger had played 75 ECHL games, 139 AHL games and 15 NHL games with the Panthers and Ottawa Senators, and a not a single postseason game since turning pro in 2014.
Vanecek, who was selected by Washington in the second round (No. 39) of the 2014 NHL Draft, spent five seasons in the minors, playing 141 regular-season games and eight playoff games with Hershey in the AHL and 34 regular-season games and 11 playoff games with South Carolina in the ECHL before making his NHL debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 15.
“We wait pretty long. That’s true,” Vanecek said. “But in the NHL, there’s always the best goalies. So you feel in the AHL, you are ready, you are ready, but if you look up, there’s still great goalies. So it’s really hard.”
Vanecek, who leads NHL rookies in wins (18-9-4) with a 2.75 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and two shutouts in 33 games (32 starts), was third on Washington’s depth chart before Henrik Lundqvist announced Dec. 17 a heart condition would prevent him from playing this season. When Ilya Samsonov entered NHL COVID-19 protocol Jan. 20, Vanecek became the Capitals No. 1 goalie and started 13 consecutive games before settling into a rotation since Samsonov’s return Feb. 28.
The door opened for Nedeljkovic, Carolina’s second-round pick (No. 37) in the 2014 draft, when Petr Mrazek injured his right thumb Jan. 30 and needed surgery. After beginning the season on the Hurricanes taxi squad, Nedeljkovic is 14-4-3 and ranks first in GAA (1.89) and save percentage (.934) among goalies who have played at least 20 games this season.
Nedeljkovic spent five seasons in the minors, playing 154 regular-season games and 23 playoff games with Charlotte in the AHL and 15-regular-season games and seven playoff games with Florida in the ECHL.
“The only thing that you can do is show up to the rink every day whatever level you’re at and focus on getting better and somebody’s going to take notice of it eventually,” he said. “An opportunity is going to come through a trade, through waivers, free agency, an injury, something. An opportunity is going to come and when that opportunity arises you have to be able to make the most of it.”
Kahkonen got his opportunity with Minnesota when Alex Stalock was sidelined at the start of this season. Stalock, who was claimed on waivers by the Edmonton Oilers on March 1, told The Athletic he was recovering from a heart condition stemming from contracting COVID-19.
A fourth-round pick (No. 109) in the 2014 draft, Kahkonen has pushed Talbot for playing time by going 15-7-0 with a 2.69 GAA. .909 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games (21 starts). Aside from a five-game stint with the Wild last season, Kahkonen spent the past two seasons with Iowa in the AHL after three seasons in Liiga, the top professional league in his native Finland.
Kevin Lankinen of the Chicago Blackhawks followed a similar path. The 26-year-old rookie played four seasons in Liiga and two seasons in the AHL with Rockford before working his way up from the taxi squad to help the rebuilding Blackhawks remain in playoff contention in the Discover Central Division for much of the season.
Lankinen went 9-3-3 with a 2.55 GAA, .924 save percentage and one shutout in his first 15 games, sparking Chicago to a 12-7-4 start, and is 16-14-5 with a 3.04 GAA, .908 save percentage and two shutouts in 36 games.
“These guys, whether you’re looking at the NHL or the American League, they’re skilled. They’re physically skilled,” Capitals goalie coach Scott Murray said. “The other thing you’re finding out about these guys is they’re pretty fearless.”
Driedger, Ottawa’s third-round pick (No. 76) in the 2012 NHL Draft, began last season with Springfield in the AHL, before going 7-2-1 with a 2.05 GAA, .938 save percentage and one shutout in 12 games with the Panthers. Prior to sustaining a lower-body injury against the Nashville Predators on Monday, Driedger was 13-6-3 with a 2.17 GAA, .923 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 games this season.
Calvin Petersen‘s breakthrough with the Los Angeles Kings also came last season after Jack Campbell was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 5, 2020. This season, Petersen is 8-15-4 with a 2.90 GAA and .913 save percentage in 29 games (27 starts) sharing the net with Jonathan Quick, and the 26-year old has helped the Kings take the next step in their rebuild.
“There’s only 62 (goalie) jobs in the NHL and there’s a lot of really good goalies around the world, especially at the AHL level,” Petersen said. “I think sometimes you don’t get the benefit of the doubt because you’re in the AHL and not the NHL, so there must be some reasons for it. But sometimes it’s just kind of a numbers situation and you have to wait for your turn to show what you can do.”