Detroit — This season hasn’t gone the way Alex Nedeljkovic imagined it would. It likely wasn’t on anyone’s radar that Nedeljkovic would be in Grand Rapids in mid-February attempting to straighten out his game and waiting on a call back to the Red Wings, and the NHL.
But that’s where Nedeljkovic is these days, and showing signs he is returning to his form of the past two seasons, with the Wings and Carolina, where Nedeljkovic was a rookie of the year finalist.
“My mindset is really just playing the game and having fun and working hard,” Nedeljkovic said after Wednesday’s 5-4 victory over Rockford. “Getting back to the simple things and back to basics and remembering what it’s all about.”
Nedeljkovic made 38 saves Wednesday and improved to 8-4-2 since arriving in Grand Rapids. He has a sturdy 2.50 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
Wednesday’s victory may not have been as impeccable as some of the other games have been, but Nedeljkovic found a way to win. He battled.
And that’s usually when Nedeljkovic is at this best.
“I feel good about where my game is at,” Nedeljkovic said. “(Wednesday) was just a couple of weird bounces, a couple of plays that kind of got away from me. But I feel good.
“I feel like I can win a game on any given night, if need be.”
That’s what NHL teams need on occasion, when maybe the skaters aren’t playing quite well enough but the goaltender will not allow a puck past him.
Nedeljkovic was that goaltender often for the Wings last season, but not often enough this season. With Ville Husso providing elite goaltending from the start of the season, Nedeljkovic found his time in net dwindling.
“It was a while there when I wasn’t playing at all, and before that playing every couple of weeks,” Nedeljkovic said. “It was different for sure. I hadn’t been in that position for a long time. This last month (in Grand Rapids), month and a half, it’s been refreshing to play some games and play a consistent schedule and just feel the puck again.”
Nedeljkovic was 2-4-2 with a 4.09 GAA and .880 SVS with the Wings. Things began to falter, and Nedeljkovic didn’t have a chance to regain control.
It wasn’t anything technical, or something Nedeljkovic could necessarily tweak or correct in practice.
“Honestly it was just me thinking too much and overthinking the game itself,” Nedeljkovic said. “Trying to anticipate a little too much. I’ve been able to, since I’ve been down here and play with these guys, to just go with the flow and read and react and get back to having some fun.
“When you start thinking, it’s not that fun and usually when you start thinking, you start letting goals in and that’s not fun, either. Just read and react and try not to think too much, and that’s been the key for me lately.”
For the Griffins, Nedeljkovic’s arrival has been a bit of a godsend.
The Griffins weren’t getting good enough goaltending from a variety of sources, and it contributed to them falling in the standings. Nedeljkovic has solidified the Griffins’ net, while looking to solidify his own performance as well.
“He’s competitive,” said Griffins coach Ben Simon, who was familiar with Nedeljkovic from past years in the American League when Nedeljkovic was in Carolina’s organization. “When you hadn’t played a ton of game, the message for him was to find his game, and he’s come down here and has had an unbelievable attitude with his work ethic and positivity and that’s helped us as a group.”
Nedeljkovic has done everything within his scope, Simon said, to improve and get his game in order.
“All he can do is make sure he’s ready to play and be competitive in every game and doing his best to stop the puck,” Simon said. “He’s done a good job of that since he’s been down here.”
Alex Chiasson, a veteran Griffins’ forward, gives Nedeljkovic credit for the Griffins’ turnaround in recent weeks.
“He’s been real good for us since he’s been here,” Chiasson said. “It’s a tough situation for him, I’m sure, but he’s kind of battled his way back and found his game. Any game you watch him, he’s been our best player and he’s given our team an opportunity to win, so good for him.
“I’ve really enjoyed him. He’s got a great work ethic, he comes in every day and he’s been a real, fortunately in a way for us, a key addition for our group.”
The Griffins (20-22-4) find themselves nine points from a playoff spot entering Thursday’s games, so there’s plenty of work to do to make the postseason. But the recent upswing (6-3-1) has given the Griffins hope, and Nedeljkovic has been re-energized by the time in west Michigan.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Nedeljkovic said. “We had a good win streak there going before the All-Star break, and we came back a little flat and put ourselves in a tough spot in the playoff race here. We have a lot of work to do, and as much as I talk about fun and enjoying the game, you also want to win and make playoffs, and that’s a lot of fun too.”
An interesting question will be whether Nedeljkovic remains in Grand Rapids for the duration of this season, or whether he returns to the Wings.
While Husso is solidifying himself as one of the NHL’s up-and-coming goaltenders, the backup position remains a question mark.
When Nedeljkovic struggled, the Wings claimed Magnus Hellberg off waivers. Hellberg (2-4-1, 2.72 GAA., .896 SVS with Detroit) has been good in spots, but hasn’t put a stranglehold on the roster spot.
If Nedeljkovic continues to thrive and find consistency, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wings recall Nedeljkovic in the upcoming days or weeks.
“If you’re asking me how I feel about where my game is at in terms of taking the next step (to the NHL), that’s up to management and what they see and if they want to make that call,” Nedeljkovic said. “But I feel real good about where my game is at and where it’s been the last couple weeks.”