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Why Penguins Should Keep Nedeljkovic, Let Blomqvist Develop

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Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic

It was a bit jarring a week ago when Kyle Dubas all but guaranteed that Pittsburgh Penguins backup goalie Alex Nedeljkovic will not be re-signed.

Not only because Dubas, who is the team’s president of hockey operations and general manager, doesn’t make a habit of publicly divulging his personnel plans, but because he made it clear that Joel Blomqvist will have an opportunity to claim the position Nedeljkovic held behind Tristan Jarry during the past season.

That would be the same Joel Blomqvist who is just 22 and is completing his first full season in North America as the go-to goalie for the Penguins’ farm team in Wilkes-Barre. (He’d made a couple of cameo appearances there, appearing in one game with the Baby Penguins at the end of the previous two seasons.)

There’s no question that Blomqvist, who was the Penguins’ second-round draft choice in 2020, has considerable promise.

He went 25-12-6, with a 2.16 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, in 45 games during the regular season. That was good enough to earn him a spot on the American Hockey League’s all-rookie team and second all-star team.

Those are no small feats for a goaltender getting acclimated to pro hockey on this side of the Atlantic.

And while Blomqvist gave up a soft goal that opened the scoring in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 2-1 loss to Lehigh Valley in Game 1 of their best-of-three playoff series Wednesday, that isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, because even the most accomplished goaltenders occasionally allow a goal that could — and should — have been prevented.

Blomqvist finished with 30 saves on 32 shots, 26 of which he faced during the final two periods.

Unless an injury or illness arises, Blomqvist figures to get the start when Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tries to stave off elimination when it visits Lehigh Valley Friday evening. It will be the most high-stakes game of his season, and should give some indication of how he holds up in adverse circumstances.

But regardless of how his first pro season in North America ends — whether it’s with a loss to the Phantoms tonight or a Calder Cup celebration later this spring — the Penguins have to be wary of force-feeding the NHL to Blomqvist before he absolutely is ready for that considerable challenge.

More than a few promising young goaltenders — defensemen, too — have had their development stunted, or even their careers ultimately ended, because they were promoted to the parent club before it was prudent.

Leaving a prospect in the minors for too long can lead to him picking up some bad habits, but those are a lot easier to fix than a young player’s confidence after it’s been shattered by competing at a level for which he was not prepared.

Nedeljkovic has earned more money and security than his expiring one-year, $1.5 millon deal provided, and it’s possible that his contract demands will exceed what the Penguins are able and/or willing to meet.

But for a team that’s adamant about focusing primarily on short-term success, having a proven backup to complement — or, if need be, replace — Jarry is imperative. If the Pittsburgh Penguins put Blomqvist in that role before he’s ready, they could be self-sabotaging their season.

And, in a worse-case scenario, doing the same to Blomqvist’s future.

If, at some point while Nedeljkovic would be under contract, Blomqvist would bully his way onto the NHL roster by virtue of exceptional play, the Penguins should be able to trade Nedeljkovic or Jarry, because there usually are clubs looking for a capable goaltender. Whether Nedeljkovic could demand some sort of limited no-trade protection in his next contract is hard to say, and Jarry can submit a list of 12 teams to which he would not be required to accept a trade.

Nedeljkovic is one of a number of veteran NHL goaltenders scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer, although some might re-sign with their current clubs before July 1.

That list also includes the likes of Matt Murray (remember him?), Ilya Samsonov, Cam Talbot, Laurent Brossoit and Casey DeSmith, among others.

Most are older than Nedeljkovic, and quite a few make more money.

Maybe one actually would be an upgrade on Nedeljkovic.

Maybe.

Or maybe Blomqvist, whose stickhandling makes Marc-Andre Fleury look like Connor McDavid, will be ready to step up to the NHL.

Maybe.

Either gamble could work out for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Neither, however, seems to be worth taking now.