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Signs Point to Penguins Not Re-Signing Nedeljkovic; Space for Top Prospect



Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Nedeljkovic

Alex Nedeljkovic got the news Thursday during breakup day. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a top goalie prospect pushing for an NHL sweater, and the team wants to see if he’s ready.

That’s not good for Nedeljkovic’s future in Pittsburgh.

Penguins president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas held a sweeping end-of-season press conference Friday at the UPMC Lemieux Complex. He often used a lot of words, sometimes thoroughly explaining a situation, other times not, but he admitted in his opening remarks that some questions wouldn’t yet have satisfactory answers.

Out of the gate, Dubas answered the Nedeljkovic question. Amongst the praise was the bad news for those hoping to see Nedeljkovic in the Penguins’ net next season.

“He’s an unrestricted free agent. He’s been very vocal about his views (wanting to return). As I said to him yesterday, we have a situation where we have a young goaltender that’s also pushing, Joel Bloomqvist,” Dubas said. “We’re going to use this next stretch of weeks, the last two games with (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins) … and then really (important), the playoffs with Wilkes. How does Joel play? Can he assert himself at that level? And then we’ll have more information on how we want to go ahead with our goaltending.”

Essentially, the Penguins are giving Blomqvist the first right of refusal for next year. If he’s ready, he’s in.

Recall PHN’s scouting trip to WBS on Jan. 24. Jack St. Ivany called Blomqvist “our best player” and their “heartbeat.”

In 45 AHL games, the 22-year-old Blomqvist had a robust .921 save percentage, leading the WBS Penguins back to the AHL playoffs.

Meaning in all likelihood, Nedeljkovic will not be back with the Penguins, for two simple reasons.

First, even if the Penguins brass deems Blomqvist not ready, the team would have no incentives to offer Nedeljkovic a multi-year deal because the prospect will be ready sooner rather than later. Nedeljkovic would merely be a placeholder. Second, other teams will most likely offer Nedeljkovic more security than the Penguins are able to.

Nedeljkovic’s Run

The Penguins backup goalie became the starter down the stretch. Nedeljkovic started the final 14 games of the season, including returning to the net after being pulled in a crucial 6-4 loss to the Boston Bruins on April 13.

Tristan Jarry relieved Nedeljkovic and took the loss.

However, an admittedly tired Nedeljkovic got the call from coach Mike Sullivan until the Penguins ran out of games in which to erase their points deficit, and the season ended after Game 82.

Read more: Saying Goodbye to the 2023-24 Penguins season.

It was a desperate and valiant sprint to the end, one that will earn Nedeljkovic a nice payday on July 1 if the Penguins no longer need his services.

“He’s a great person, great work ethic, great motor. I was very happy for him because he’s competed his butt off throughout the year, especially when our team wasn’t playing well at all down the stretch in March,” said Dubas. “He showed up every day to work–both goalies did. So it’s nice to see him especially get rewarded because he’d had a couple of tough years before coming in here, and (he) really won the respect of everybody in the room.

“And so it was great to see him take advantage and run with it.”

Lost in the chaos and intensity of the final charge to make the playoffs was the immutable fact that the Penguins No. 1 franchise goalie was benched for the crucial games in which the season hung in the balance. Sullivan called Nedeljkovic the “hot hand,” but the numbers were no different from those for the rest of the season.

The team was hot. Nedeljkovic did his job. And Jarry watched.

However, Nedeljkovic’s numbers were not spectacular during the desperate sprint to the playoffs. Beginning with the important wins over the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils on April 1 and 2, Nedeljkovic’s save percentage over the nine April games was .889, with a 3.28 goals-against average.

For the season, Nedeljkovic and Jarry shared similar numbers, though Nedeljkovic maintained a much better win-loss record throughout the season.

Nedeljkovic finished with a .902 save percentage in 38 games but had an 18-7-7 record. Jarry finished with a .903 save percentage but a 19-25-5 record.

Both goalies were above a .915 save percentage for most of the season until the March swoon. However, if you believe in analytics for goalies, Nedeljkovic also sported a negative goals-saved-above-average number of minus-1.6.

Jarry slipped to “only” minus-.7, according to HockeyReference.

The fanbase’s choice is overwhelmingly Nedeljkovic. To underscore the point, the leading (player) search term for readers coming to PHN in March and April was not Sidney Crosby but Alex Nedeljkovic.

Nedeljkovic wants to stay, too.

“I’d love to be back and pick up where we left off. We ended on a high note—well, we lost a tough one (to the New York Islanders), but we’ve played some good hockey lately,” Nedeljkovic said on locker clean-out day. It’s hard not to want to come back and play with the guys we have in this locker room.”

There has been and will be no shortage of calls for Dubas to trade Jarry. Sullivan’s decision to start Nedeljkovic over the final 14 games in which the Penguins were 8-2-4 (including the meaningless loss to the New York Islanders) certainly adds validity to that opinion.

But don’t make a point to bet on it. Or waste time hoping for it.

“What does that say about Tristan? When you close out, you look at the whole year. I think (Jrry) would be the first to tell you he wanted to be better and has to be better,” Dubas said. “And I think that’s one of the best things about athletics. Tristan has massive potential.

For most of the year, (our) goaltending was right near the top of the league in tandem. And what I’m most excited about for Tristan is that I think every player that gets in these spots at these points in their career. It can be a real inflection point, and he’ll have to decide how he wants to respond next year. Obviously, (there’s) doubt. There are questions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily just because of his play. It’s because of Ned. When (Jarry) got sick, he stepped in and ran with it. So I’m excited to see how Tristan responds because that’s what this is really all about. How guys like that are able to push back when things don’t go their way.”

The inference was clear. Dubas told Nedeljkovic they have a prospect pushing for a roster spot and then waxed hopeful of Jarry’s response for next season.

No one can take away what Nedeljkovic did for the Penguins. Sullivan heaped praise on him, personally and professionally. Sullivan also seemed to believe that Nedeljkovic’s persona helped the Penguins down the stretch (Read More: The Nedeljkovic Effect).

So, the good news is that Nedeljkovic will get a solid payday on July 1, but it doesn’t appear the checks will come from the Penguins.