Heated Reactions Mark Nedeljkovic Trade

Suspense-Thriller author Jeb Bohn

By JEB BOHN

Woo boy.

Carolina Hurricanes Twitter was at DEFCON 1 this afternoon when news broke that the team had shipped off goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic in exchange for the rights to fellow netminder Jonathan Bernier and a 3rd round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

Are things as bad as they look?

From Waivers to Calder Finalist

Regardless of where you stand on this trade, you cannot argue the performance Nedeljkovic put up in 2021.

On waivers in January, Nedeljkovic stepped up when Petr Mrazek—off to a hot start of his own—went down with a thumb injury.

Appearing in 23 games with Carolina, the 25-year-old Nedeljkovic posted a 15-5-3 record. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the rest of his stat line (1.90 GAA, .932 SV%, 3 SO) is equally sterling.

While his playoff numbers (4-5, 2.17, .920) weren’t as good, Nedeljkovic wasn’t the reason the Hurricanes failed to advance past the second round.

Adding credence to just how good his season was, Nedeljkovic was named as a finalist for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie. 

The award ultimately went to Minnesota Wild phenom Kirill Kaprizov, but “Ned” had gotten some well-deserved recognition.

After 6 seasons spent primarily in the minors, appearances indicated he had played his way into a full-time NHL gig. He’ll get his chance to deliver, just not with the team that drafted and developed him.

No Contract in Carolina

Nedeljkovic’s breakout season came at the right time, as the 2021 season marked the end of his contract. Working to Carolina’s benefit was the fact that he was a Restricted Free Agent, giving the team an exclusive window to negotiate.

For whatever reason, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement.

This is where the heat from the Twitterverse really cranks up.

Everything from owner Tom Dundon’s purse strings to General Manager Don Waddell’s competence has been called into question.

I get it, I do. As fans, we love our team and our players. When a guy has a season like the one Nedeljkovic did, we want to see them rewarded by the team.

The bottom line is we don’t know what went on behind the scenes, and we may never know. Perhaps he decided that he wanted to play closer to home—which Detroit certainly is—and that affected his demands or decision.

We don’t know.

What do we know? Ned’s out; Bernier is (maybe) in; Neither Mrazek nor James Reimer are under contract. The goaltending situation is far from settled, and that’s okay—for now.

Recency Bias

I’ll draw ire for this, and that’s fine, but nobody at this point knows just what Alex Nedeljkovic is at the NHL level.

That goes for Waddell and his counterpart in Detroit, NHL legend Steve Yzerman. The former is betting that this season was a high-water mark for the netminder, maybe even an anomaly; the latter is betting that the kid has just scratched the surface.

At this point—wait for it—we just don’t know.

We do know that his placement on waivers was largely justified.

Hear me out.

Prior to this season, Nedeljkovic appeared in just 6 games over the span of 3 seasons. Here’s what he did:

  • Record: 2-2-1
  • GAA: 2.55
  • SV%: .907

Those numbers aren’t awful, but they’re not spectacular, either. He performed inconsistently over this period, further raising the question of whether this season was an outlier.

Let’s look a little deeper.

In two stints (2014-15; 2016-17) with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, Nedeljkovic posted save percentages of .841 and .903, respectively.

In his 4 seasons with the Charlotte Checkers, he posted a save percentage above .910 just once.

No, these aren’t absolutes in determining his NHL future, but it’s certainly worth noting. This is especially true for an NHL GM when evaluating whether a player fits into the framework of their team.

Yes, he had a phenomenal 2021 campaign and yes, he led the Checkers to a Calder Cup Championship, but those aren’t rock-solid indicators of his true potential any more than his past struggles.

Looking at the deal he signed with Detroit (2 years, $3 million per), it’s easy to say that the Hurricanes cheaped out. However, if the team didn’t see him as the solution, they can now allocate that money towards finding the fit they’re after.

I’m not saying they’re right or wrong, I’m just stating what is.

What Bernier Brings—If He Stays

Jonathan Bernier was, at one time, one of the most sought-after young goalies in the league.

Granted, that was many years ago and, while he hasn’t lived up to those lofty expectations, Bernier hasn’t been a scrub. I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement but consider that only once—his rookie season—has he posted a sub-900 save percentage.

Over the last 3 seasons, that number sits at .908—nothing to write home about, until you consider that he was playing for a woeful Red Wings team.

At this stage of his career—he’ll be 33 when the season begins—Bernier is best-suited for a backup or platoon role. There’s no reason to believe his play will fall off; in fact, on the Hurricanes, he could see something of a resurgence.

That is if he signs a new contract.

Closing Thoughts

First off, all the best to Ned as he embarks on the next stage of his career. He’s earned this opportunity and, while it’s a shame it’s not with the Hurricanes, I hope he succeeds.

It’s easy to write this trade off as a loss for Carolina, I won’t argue that. I will, however, refrain from passing judgment until I see what else Waddell and company have in store.

If this is part of a master plan to put together a better team, a team that the front office and coaching staff have full faith in, then I’ll be good.

If this ends up being an indicator of an offseason run off the rails, I’ll—well, I won’t be good.

I realize that nothing here will change your mind one way or another and that’s fine, that wasn’t my intention. Instead, I’m saying it’s too early to proclaim that the sky is falling.

We can save that for training camp.

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