Better Off Ned

Red Wings Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic Reflects On First Season In Motor City

No matter what Alex Nedeljkovic accomplishes in hockey, no matter where the sport takes him, the Detroit Red Wings goaltender can always take pride in a distinction few in his profession can claim, or likely will ever match: he is one of the rare netminders ever to score a goal not once but twice in professional-league play.

The Parma, Ohio, native did it the first time on Dec. 30, 2016, playing for the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. Behind 39 saves by Nedeljkovic, the Blades held a 4-3 lead over the Atlanta Gladiators with 30 seconds remaining. After winning a center-ice face off, the Gladiators, rather than rimming the puck around the boards, fired it right at Nedeljkovic. Big mistake.

“The goal for the summer is to find ways to be more consistent and to give us a chance to win every night. I can tell you, we will be better.” 

– Alex Nedeljkovic

“Their goalie broke right for the bench, so I knew I had an opening,” Nedeljkovic recalled after a late-season Wings practice at Little Caesars Arena. “I just caught the puck, dropped it and fired it back down the other end. I had tried it in juniors a couple times but my aim was always off.”

The kid—he was 19 at the time—was so stunned he stood motionless in his crease.

A year later, Nedeljkovic was playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League, at home against the Hartford Wolfpack, with a 6-3 lead and the far net empty. The puck came to the left of his goal and he fired it, going down to one knee to give the shot extra zip. And zip it had, sailing high in the air over the heads of the Hartford skaters before touching down at the top of the far slot before hitting the goal—dead center.

This time Nedeljkovic raced to the bench, gliding on his right skate, his left leg and arms raised in the air, before hopping up into the arms of his overjoyed teammates. 

“That’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

In the NHL, Nedeljkovic, now 26, has his sights set on a loftier goal: helping the storied Original Six franchise return to prominence. He and his mates wrapped up a season that showed some promise. In the middle of February, the Wings were a game over .500 and in the hunt for a playoff spot. Ned—no one outside his family calls him Alex—recorded 20 wins, including four shutouts and a .901 save percentage. 

Alas, the young team and its netminder faltered late in the season and finished with 74 points—25th out of 32 franchises. 

“It wasn’t a bad season, but it wasn’t great,” he said in summing up the year. “There were nights I was feeling really good about my game, but there was a little stretch there where I was fighting the puck. 

“The goal for the summer is to find ways to be more consistent and to give us a chance to win every night. I can tell you, we will be better.”

Nedeljkovic certainly has the potential to lead a Wings revival and to be a top 

NHL goaltender. 

Alex Nedeljkovic is part of a youth movement in Detroit looking to return the Original Six franchise back to prominence.Alex Nedeljkovic is part of a youth movement in Detroit looking to return the Original Six franchise back to prominence.


He grew up in Parma, outside of Cleveland. His father, Butch, was a mechanical engineer and his mother, Therese, a nurse. He has a younger brother and two younger sisters who were brought along as travel hockey took Ned to Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh. 

“Everybody would go. They were like little mini-vacations throughout the year, but I know they all sacrificed a lot to help me in hockey,” he recalled.

He worked with a well-known goalie coach, Stan Matwijiw, and played his Tier-1 hockey with Michigan powerhouse Belle Tire, where his teammates included Wings captain Dylan Larkin and Winnipeg Jets sniper Kyle Connor. Back then, it was hard to imagine all of them starring in the NHL. 

“It’s pretty surreal now when you think of it,” Nedeljkovic said.

In three seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the OHL, he emerged as a star and drew the attention of NHL scouts. In one season he had 19 games with 40 or more saves, including four with more than 50. He backstopped Team USA to a gold at the 2014 World U18 Championships and was drafted that year in the second round, 37th overall, by the Carolina Hurricanes. 

He posted steadily improving numbers while with the Everblades and Checkers—both Carolina affiliates. He finally saw some regular action with the big club in 2020-21, when he had a goals-against average of 1.90 and a save percentage of .932 in 23 games—good enough to finish third in voting for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.

He was on the golf course on an off day in 2021 when his agent called to tell him a trade to Detroit had been finalized. It was almost a dream come true. His wife Emma was studying nursing at Michigan State. Both his family and hers could easily get to Little Caesars from Ohio.

“I didn’t finish that round of golf. I was just too excited,” Ned laughed at the memory. 

This first season in Detroit had its ups and downs. Among the ups were a 4-0 win against Buffalo, with his grandparents in the stands, a 43-save, 1-0 shutout against Vancouver, and a 4-3 victory against that bunch from Carolina. 

“Not going to lie, you always have a little bit of motivation going against your former team,” he shrugged.

Looking ahead, he said he’s itching to get to work to help the Wings move forward in the 2022-23 campaign. He’d love to help the team end its six-year playoff drought. Ned also admitted to another idea that doesn’t go away: An NHL goal. 

“The third one is in the back of my head,” he laughed. “It’s always going to be there.”

 

Neal Boudette is a freelance writer and hockey dad based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Issue: 
2022-06

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