Alex Nedeljkovic never dreamed he'd play a vital role as a rookie goaltender for the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers last season.
But now that he's been there and done that, he knows the road to becoming a legitimate top prospect at his position for the 2014 NHL Draft is officially a go.
"I think it was cool as a rookie coming in and taking over and playing the minutes I played … even in the playoffs," Nedeljkovic told NHL.com. "It was a really good opportunity for me to kind of get ahead and prepare for this year.
"I knew what to expect going into this season; I know what to expect from certain teams and how the crowds will react at certain venues."
In his first OHL season, Nedeljkovic pushed incumbent Matt Mahalak, a 2011 sixth-round (No. 163) selection of the Carolina Hurricanes, all season long. He eventually took over the starting role during the OHL playoffs. There, the 6-foot, 184-pound left-hander finished 9-5 with a 2.71 goals-against average and .908 save percentage with one shutout. The Whalers dropped a five-game series to the eventual OHL champion London Knights in the Western Conference final.
Not only was Nedeljkovic named to first-team on the OHL Rookie Team, but he was also tabbed the Whalers Rookie of the Year.
Plymouth coach Mike Vellucci feels Nedeljkovic, who was chosen in the sixth round (No. 123) by the Whalers in the 2012 OHL priority draft, is primed for a successful year.
"It's a big year for Alex, but he's a great goalie," Vellucci told the Observer & Eccentric. "He's got that great demeanor and so we expect big things from him."
As a rookie, Nedeljkovic went 19-2-1-1 with a 2.28 GAA, .923 save percentage and two shutouts in 26 games. He is a B-rated goalie on NHL Central Scouting's December players to watch list from the OHL. The only A-rated goalie on Central Scouting's list is Thatcher Demko of Boston College in Hockey East.
"I feel it's something hard to accomplish, but just because I'm B-rated now doesn't mean I will be in the future," Nedeljkovic said. "I have to keep playing hard to keep that rating and that's what I'm going to do."
In 36 games for Plymouth (15-21-4) in 2013-14, Nedeljkovic is 13-18-4 with a 3.24 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. On Saturday, he was named third star in a 4-3 shootout victory against the Niagara IceDogs, making 39 saves in regulation and overtime before denying both shooters in the tiebreaker. He was invited to participate in the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Top Prospects Game in Pittsburgh in September and stopped 13 of 16 shots in 30:53 of playing time.
Nedeljkovic will also participate in the 2014 BMO CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Calgary on Jan. 15.
"He's another very quick and athletic goalie; I like his drive and determination," Central Scouting's Al Jensen told NHL.com. "He battles and has good strength in his crease area, has excellent recovery and lateral quickness. He's got quick reactions, flaring out his pads to make low corner stops. He's very smart and is capable of playing big games consistently."
Nedeljkovic was asked if he considers his position more mentally or physically demanding.
"It's probably 60 percent mental and 40 physical, just because the mental game now is such a big part of it," he said. "You have to be able to get rid of those bad goals right away, because 10 seconds later the puck is coming right back at you and you might have to make that big save."
He was reminded of the tough 4-0 loss he took as a member of the United States Under-18 Select Team against Canada in the final of the 2013 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka over the summer. Despite a 26-save effort, the Canadians earned their sixth straight tournament title.
"My immediate reaction after that loss is disappointment because it was Canada and anytime you lose to Canada … those are the games you want to win if you're wearing the USA jersey," Nedeljkovic said. "That was a tough one to get out of my head just because you're watching them celebrate in front of you, and going through the handshake line they're smiling and cheering."
It's just another example of how difficult it is to remain mentally focused as a goalie.
"A lot of people think that just because you're a goalie, it's just about staying in the net, but you have to be able to keep up with that play for two-and-a-half minutes at a time and that could do a lot on your body so you have to be physically capable," he said. "Anything I can do to make myself mentally stronger is probably the most important thing for me as a goalie."