Nedeljkovic leading from behind for Whalers

By Jason Menard
Alex Nedeljkovic - Plymouth Whalers

Photo: Pllymouth Whalers goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic is a top prospect in net for the 2014 NHL Draft (courtesy of Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

 

After bursting onto the Ontario Hockey League scene in a big way last year, all eyes are on the Plymouth Whalers’ netminder Alex Nedeljkovic this season as one of the most promising goaltenders for the 2014 NHL Draft.

It’s already been a successful start to the 2013-14 OHL campaign for Nedeljkovic. He has a CHL Goaltender of the Week nod under his belt and NHL Central Scouting graded him an A on its Players to Watch list — the only OHL netminder to earn that designation. The Parma, OH native said he was surprised by the designation for a couple of reasons.

“I actually wasn’t sure when the list was coming out — it completely slipped my mind,” he said. “So I was surprised when it came out and I was very pleased that I was given an A. I thought that, because I’m not 6’2 or 6’3, that my height might hurt my standing, but I’m very pleased with my grade.

“Of course, I’d be happy with getting a B or a C — it would just mean I’d have to work harder to prove myself.”

At a self-professed just-shy-of-six-foot-one, Nedeljkovic isn’t small, but he’s said he’s not the prototypical size for the modern goaltender. And that just motivates him to prove his ability.

“Obviously goalies who are bigger have longer arms and legs, they can take up more of the net. Even dropping into the butterfly, their shoulders can still come close to the crossbar. It gives them a little advantage,” he said. “What it does is give the smaller guys a bit of a chip on their shoulder to work harder and prove that height isn’t everything.

“I was watching something on Mike Smith. He’s a bigger guy, so he plays a bit deeper in his net because of his size. It forces smaller guys to play out farther, read angles better.”

Nedeljkovic said there’s no one way to play his position.

“There are many different ways to play — it all comes down to what you’re most comfortable with,” he said. “Whatever way I stop the puck, that’s the best style for me.”

This season, Nedeljkovic explained that he’s tried to get back to basics and economize his movement.

“The style of play I’ve come to use is much more simple than before,” he added. “ Everything I do is for a purpose. Wherever the puck is in the zone, there’s a certain depth and positioning depending on where the puck is. I’ve really simplified my game a lot.

“It’s watching the puck into my body, watching it on my body, watching it into the corner.”

The Parma, OH native grew up idolizing one of the game’s all-time greats. And if he performs at all like the idol he has already set his eyes upon, then some NHL team will be very, very pleased down the road.

“Growing up, I mainly kept an eye on Martin Brodeur — he was definitely my idol growing up,” he said. “He really has driven me to get where I am now and is motivating me to get to the next level.

“Some of my goals, besides making the NHL, are actually accomplishing many of the goals he has set. I want to be the most successful goalie in NHL history; I want to play in all those games; I even want to score a goal like him. He’s a very old-school goalie. I think my style is a little more simple than his, but we do have some similarities. We both react to the shot and we both watch everything on the ice.”

He was named CHL Goaltender of the Week for the period ending Sept. 29th. In seven games to start the season, he’s faced an average of 37.3 shots per game — and that’s including one contest where the team only allowed 21 shots. He currently sports a 2.99 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.

“There’s 60 teams in the CHL. Usually there will be more than 60 goalies playing in a weekend. To be recognized as ‘the one goalie’ for that week is a huge honour,” he said. “More importantly, it was a good week for the team. We got our first two wins. If it wasn’t for the guys in front of me, there’s no way I’d be considered for this award.”

And despite the incredible volume of shots that he’s faced so far, Nedeljkovic said he’s pleased with the job the guys have been doing in front of him.

“My preference is more shots. Some players would rather only see 20 shots, but I find that the nights when you have only 15 to 20 shots are more difficult to play than the nights when you have 35 to 40,” he said. “When you only face 20 shots, you’re not getting a shot every minute or minute-and-a-half; sometimes you go three or four minutes without a shot. It’s harder to stay mentally involved and you never really get into a rhythm.

“When you face more shots, your head is forced to stay in the game. Mentally, it’s easier but physically it’s tougher. But, honestly, if you’re doing something that you enjoy, you want to do it to its fullest. I love having more shots because I love what I do. It doesn’t matter how many shots you give up as a team if they’re all coming from the outside, the boards — more shots isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Last season, he finished his rookie campaign with a 19-2-1-1 record in 26 games behind a 2.28 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. He continued his strong play in the playoffs, posting a 9-4-1 record in 15 games with a 2.71 goals-against and .908 save percentage.

In last year’s campaign, he was a rookie getting his feet wet. This season, he understands he needs to take more of a leadership role on a squad that’s lost a lot of veteran talent over the off-season.

“We are younger and we’ve lost a lot of veterans from last season, but I think — in the long run — it’s going to make us stronger as a team and closer as a team,” he said. “I think I will be playing more of a leadership role than I thought I would in my second year, but I don’t mind. I want that role and we have some great leaders on this team that I want to be a part of.”

Nedeljkovic added he’s seeing incredible drive and determination in the new crop of rookies.

“What I’m finding with these younger guys is that their will to win is just as strong, if not stronger, than the older guys,” he said. “They are coming from successful programs and are used to winning. When they lose one, two, or three games in a row, they get that bitter taste in their mouths and they find that it feels bad. So they’re driven to work harder and start winning.”

This summer Nedeljkovic participated in the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, earning a silver medal with Team USA. He said playing against some of the world’s finest players was a great learning experience.

“Going overseas, the game is a lot different. The European and Russian style of play is so different that anytime you can go over it’s great because you learn so much,” he said. “A lot of the European players are a lot more patient; they like to make the extra move, so it forces you to be more reactive and more patient.”

He also participated in the recent CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, where he caught up with some familiar faces.

“A lot of the guys there I’d either played with or played against,” he said. “It’s good to see how they’ve progressed and it was a great opportunity to learn from other goalies at the tournament. With all that talent on the ice, it was really cool to be a part of that event.”

Although the marquee world junior hockey tournament may not be in this season’s cards, it is something that Nedeljkovic is targetting.

“If [playing in the WJC] happens, I’ll definitely be happy about it. It’s something I’m striving for,” he said. “I wasn’t invited over the summer to the camp and I’m not expecting it in the fall or winter, but I’m striving for a spot on that team.

“If I get the chance, it will be a great honour and it’s something I really want to do. Obviously, next year and the year after, when it’s my age group’s time, my chances will be better.”

As it’s his draft-eligible year, Nedeljkovic understands he’s auditioning for a future job. But even though scouts will pack whatever arena he’s in, he’s determined to not let it go to — or get into — his head.

“When it comes to scouts, that’s something I really try to put in the back of my mind. As good as that is to know that people are coming to see you, it can also be a bad thing,” he said. “If my mind is focused on who is watching me, or if I start trying to impress the scouts, my mind may start to wander and I’ll let in a goal or two that I normally wouldn’t.

“Then [the scouts] may start to wonder, ‘What’s all the hype around this guy?’ or ‘Maybe he just can’t handle the pressure.’”

No matter who is watching him, here’s hoping that they pronounce his Slovakian-derived name properly at the podium.

“The worst I’ve ever heard is when somebody tries to pronounce every single letter as if they were separate,” he said. “They’ll pronounce the ‘j’ and the ‘c’; they won’t add the ‘h’ sound at the end. After a couple of times hearing the right way it starts to stick. Growing up I heard it in many different ways.”

Follow Jason Menard on Twitter via @JayCMenard