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Nedeljkovic Pushing Jarry Aside, Future Questions Loom



Pittsburgh Penguins, Tristan Jarry, Alex Nedeljkovic

Tristan Jarry remained on the ice long after practice was over. He was taking a break as the media exited the Penguins locker room at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, having a laugh with the other players who will not be in the lineup. He’s grabbing the extra work wherever he can get it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are careening toward the Stanley Cup playoffs, sometimes overcoming their own demons and often finding the internal desire that seemed lost for much of the season. It’s been messy, chaotic, and unpredictable, but the team has a 10-game points streak behind its No. 1 goalie.

Unexpectedly, that No. 1 goalie is Alex Nedeljkovic, not Jarry.

Adding more drama to the situation, Nedeljkovic is a pending unrestricted free agent. Last July 1, Jarry signed a five-year contract with an average annual salary cap hit of $5.375 million.

After getting roughed up a little bit over the last few games, Nedeljkovic’s save percentage has fallen to .90. Still, it’s impossible to fault a goaltender whose defense plays as haphazardly as the Penguins on Thursday. The numbers aren’t necessarily the indicator; as coach Mike Sullivan noted Friday, they judge the goaltender’s performance in context.

Yet one stat the Penguins undoubtedly love is Nedeljkovic’s record, 17-6-7. Jarry is 19-24-5.

Make no mistake, coaches don’t often shelve franchise goalies in the season’s final weeks in favor of the understudy. In fact, one can question if Jarry is indeed still the franchise goalie after coach Sullivan tossed his goalie schedule in the hopper in favor of sticking with Nedeljkovic.

Jarry was pulled twice in three games prior to Nedeljkovic’s 10-game run as a starter. In full disclosure, Jarry was unavailable due to illness for a game he was expected to start against the New York Rangers on April 1 and was not available to back up the following day.

However, it was the April 1 victory over the Rangers, followed by Nedeljkovic’s gutsy performance the next night in New Jersey, that lit the fire that is now the Penguins’ hot streak toward a playoff berth.

When PHN asked multiple players about the moment that they felt things turn, everyone cited one of those two games (Read More: The Moment the Penguins KNEW They Were In It)

When PHN asked Sullivan last week about the goalie schedule, the coach straddled the fence but kept the door open to sticking with Nedeljkovic.

“It’s a discussion we have after every game. We certainly have games penciled in for both of them,” Sullivan said. “But we’re going to make decisions day to day, and performance always is going to be the dictator.”

With only three games remaining in the regular season, it would be shocking if Jarry played another game. Such a circumstance would only be precipitated by Nedeljkovic faltering or suffering an injury.

It’s almost assured that Nedeljkovic will start Game 1 if the Penguins get into the playoffs.

And no, the Penguins don’t see Nedeljkovic wearing down.

“We’re not concerned about fatigue. We think he’s got a great motor,” Sullivan said Friday. “He’s in great shape and hasn’t necessarily had an exhaustive workload this season.”

It is to Sullivan’s credit that he did not default to Jarry as soon as available. He held to the cliche “play the hot hand,” but even as Nedeljkovic has cooled, settling into a steady rhythm, Sullivan has kept Nedeljkovic in net.

One week ago in Columbus, this was the response to the question. After practice Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Complex, Jarry was on the ice long after practice, getting extra work.

It’s becoming a looming storyline for the offseason. What will president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas do with the goaltenders?

Sure, signing Nedeljkovic is a possibility, but after rescuing the team down the stretch, he’s unlikely to sign another bargain deal like his current one-year, $1.5 million deal.

“He’s making timely saves, and he’s finding ways to help us win games. And I think there’s something to that. I just love his compete level. I love his battle level. His demeanor,” said Sullivan. “I didn’t think he had his best early in the game (Thursday), but then I thought he found it, and he made some big saves. His puck handling is a real asset in helping us with breakouts. He puts our defensemen in pretty good positions and handling some of the pressure forchecks that a lot of the league is bringing in today’s game.”

There is some specific praise in there, and it’s not hard to extrapolate that Sullivan thinks Nedeljkovic is good for the team.

Yet Nedeljkovic is earning leverage and coin with each save, and he won’t be taking a pay cut, not with the rising salary cap this summer.

The Penguins have pressing needs throughout their lineup. Shoveling millions more into their goaltending is not something Dubas has ever done or done well.

Ilya Samsonov, Matt Murray, Jack Campbell, David Rittich, and Petr Mrazek are a few dented-can goalies that Dubas acquired for his Toronto Maple Leafs teams in hopes one could provide consistent and reliable netminding.

All of them failed, and most spent time in the AHL over the last two seasons. Samsonov is resurrecting his career late this season but was waived earlier in the campaign.

Dubas’s track record with goalies isn’t so hot.

Nedeljkovic has earned his place in the Penguins’ net and resurrected his career after a couple of terrible seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

Whether a team will take a chance on him as a No. 1 goalie, whether he believes that’s his best career path, or if he’s comfortable with a 1A-type role will be determined when all of the chaotic playoff dust settles.

After resuscitating the Florida Panthers season last year, goalie Alex Lyon didn’t greatly improve his fortunes and signed a one-year, $900,000 deal with the Detroit Red Wings.

So, perhaps Nedeljkovic’s run isn’t the manna from heaven it could be. Perhaps more teams would be a little skeptical, and a shorter deal with a more affordable term would be possible for the Penguins.

Of course, after years of grappling with his game in Columbus, Joonas Korpisalo finished strong with the LA Kings last season and cashed in with a five-year, $20 million contract in Ottawa.

It only takes one Huckleberry.

For the first time, there is a legitimate question not about the next game, but the next season. The larger decision for the Penguins might not be Nedeljovic’s future in Pittsburgh but Tristan Jarry’s. The organization, Dubas and Sullivan, must decide if Jarry is the franchise goalie or if he’s better off elsewhere. His salary is not conducive to being a backup, nor is his pedigree.

Perhaps Nedeljkovic will get a say on the matter, too.