OTTAWA — After being thoroughly embarrassed, if not humiliated, by the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-0 last Saturday, the Pittsburgh Penguins have emerged a little better for the experience. Coach Mike Sullivan has juggled the defense pairs, but he’s also thrust goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to the fore.
It’s not yet the dreaded “goalie controversy,” but it sure is something. Saturday night, Nedeljkovic will make his third straight start, fourth in five games, and fifth appearance in five games as he relieved starter Tristan Jarry during that Toronto smackdown.
In his last five appearances, he’s 3-0-1 with a .918 save percentage. Nedeljkovic helped salvage crucial points in Montreal when his team was clearly not at its best, and he allowed just one goal in the Penguins’ 2-1 shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.
Tristan Jarry hasn’t exactly been bad this season, either.
Jarry has a .913 save percentage, which took a hit in Toronto, and a healthy 5.7 goals-save-above-average, according to HockeyReference.com.
But with their season hanging in the balance, the abyss of rebuilding and waters of total team deconstruction waiting below, Sullivan turned to Nedeljkovic in a monumental game against Minnesota on Monday — the game following the Toronto debacle. If the Penguins lose to Minnesota, the sparks of implosion may have been lit.
Instead, Nedeljkovic held his ground, and the Penguins won 4-3.
Nedeljkovic, 27, won the goalie duel against Pyotr Kuchektkov when the Penguins outlasted Carolina.
Neither win was an A+ effort by the Penguins, but they won, and they remained among the mass of teams chasing the Eastern Conference wild card. If the Penguins lost a couple more games this week, they would likely be out of the playoff race.
It was not a bad week for a goalie who was left unsigned by the goalie-starved Detroit Red Wings.
Over the last two seasons, Nedeljkovic battled injury and ineffectiveness, and the Red Wings banished him to the AHL for a long spell last season. It was a fall for the 6-foot, 189-pound goalie who was once the heralded prospect in the Carolina system.
“I think he plays the puck extremely well. I think he plays it smart, also. And he doesn’t overhandle it when he doesn’t have to,” Sullivan said Saturday morning after tabbing Nedeljkovic to start. “I think there’s been a simplicity to his puck handling that helps us on the breakouts, for example. He’s brought a conservative game. He reads the plays well. He sees the puck; he’s aggressive when the opportunity presents itself, but he also recognizes when he can’t be.”
He posted a sub-par .895 save percentage in 15 NHL games last season and a paltry .901 with Detroit in 59 games the season before.
This season, he’s sporting an impressive .927 save percentage in nine games. He’s well outplaying recent history and exceeding even the Penguins’ expectations.
“Yeah, that’s a fair statement (that Nedeljkovic has exceeded expectations),” said Sullivan. “I think he’s played extremely well. He’s won a bunch of games for us here as of late … and he’s played extremely well. And so I think (Jarry) has had a solid start also. The tandem that we have right now gives us a chance to win. We’re really encouraged with how those guys have worked together.”
Don’t parse the words too much, but Sullivan’s use of the word “tandem” is noteworthy.
It’s not a goalie controversy because Jarry didn’t play his way out of a job, but Sullivan is turning to Nedeljkovic in crucial games. If nothing else, it’s showing the coach’s confidence in his personable goalie from Cleveland, who couldn’t help but do a little football trash-talking after the Browns beat the Steelers a few weeks ago.
Nedeljkovic wore a Miles Garrett Browns jersey into the locker room for his postgame media availability after he shut out the Vegas Golden Knights 3-0 on Nov. 19.
(Most of us found it pretty funny, though a few of you sure got your feathers ruffled, which only made it funnier).
What Comes Next?
There are more than a few goalie-desperate teams across the NHL. Some very good teams have been let down by goaltending. The Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils spring to mind. The Ottawa Senators, whom the Penguins face at the Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday, aren’t doing so well in net after signing Joonas Korpisalo, either.
Korpisalo has an .895 save percentage after signing a five-year, $20 million deal in July (and many Penguins fans wanted him over Jarry).
And here comes the uncertainty aspect and the possibility the Penguins could shape the NHL trade deadline in March. Teams are begging for goaltending, and the Penguins have two, if not three, NHL-caliber goalies (Magnus Hellberg had a .922 save percentage in three November appearances, too).
Nedeljkovic is seizing his opportunity and flashing his starting goalie potential. So, what might come next?
If the Penguins continue to remain merely on the periphery of the playoff race, they have a couple of aces to play. Nedeljkovic’s contract is a steal at $1.5 million his season, but it’s only a one-year deal. “Ned,” as he’s called, will be a UFA after the season, and you can almost hear his contract value climbing.
A goalie-poor team with higher hopes could surely come calling for Nedeljkovic or Jarry, who signed a five-year, $26.875 million deal on the afternoon of July 1.
Sure, we’re looking down the road around the bend just a little, but Nedeljkovic is playing well enough to earn the speculation. It doesn’t appear to be a hot streak as much as a 27-year-old goalie finding his footing in a good situation.
Sullivan will have options this season, as will the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas.
It’s not a controversy, but it sure is something.