In stunning twist, goaltending has gone from being one of the 2023-24 Pittsburgh Penguins biggest question marks to one of its biggest strengths. Not only with the play of starter Tristan Jarry, but also the play of backups Alex Nedeljkovic and Magnus Hellberg.
Nedeljkovic was brought in to replace Casey DeSmith as the Penguins’ top backup (with Casey DeSmith being included in the Erik Karlsson trade) and he has proven to be one of the more successful additions from the offseason.
He overcame a tough start on Wednesday night to stop 39 out of 42 shots in regulation and overtime, including some really tough saves to help keep the Penguins in the game when they fell down early and needed stops on some late penalty kills, and then turned aside nine shots in the shootout to help lift the Penguins to a 4-3 win and give them back-to-back wins to open the week.
It brought his overall season numbers to a 3-2-1 record to go with a .935 save percentage.
When you drill down to individual games, he has had just one game with a save percentage lower than .912, has stopped at least 30 shots in every game, and along with Wednesday’s strong effort has a 38-save shutout of the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights.
He has been everything the Penguins could have hoped for and more as a backup goalie.
And it is a little stunning given his track record coming into the season.
He burst onto the scene with the Carolina Hurricanes as a rookie during the 2020-21 season, leading the league with a .932 save percentage in 23 appearances, earning himself a third-place finish in the Calder Trophy voting. But that did not stop the Hurricanes from trading him to the Detroit Red Wings where he would have a chance to be their starting goalie and hopeful long-term answer.
It did not work out as the Red Wings planned.
When given a full-time role his performance and production plummeted, resulting in the Red Wings going out and adding Ville Husso for the 2022-23 season, sending Nedelkjovic to the bench. In his two years with the Red Wings he managed only a .900 save percentage and was a fraction of the player he was during his rookie season.
All of that made him available this offseason in free agency where the Penguins snatched him up for $1.5 million to take over as their new backup to Jarry.
After several years of goaltending failures and injuries, the Penguins clearly needed to do something different in net. When they brought back Jarry on a long-term deal it seemed like they were going to be willing to roll with the same goalie duo that had failed them for four years. But when the Karlsson trade happened it at least led to a change with the backup behind Jarry.
Given his play in Detroit it is fair to say that expectations were probably on the low side for Nedeljkovic, But goaltending remains the most volatile and unpredictable position in the sport. And this Penguins team is proving it. There was no reason for anybody to believe that this duo would be anything other than ordinary or a question, but as of Thursday it has been one of the best performing groups in the league.
It has also been the one thing that has kept the team going in the playoff race over the past month while the power play struggled and the 5-on-5 play regressed.
Individually, all three goalies have a save percentage of .917 or better, including the .935 mark for Nedeljkovic.
As a collective, their .932 5-on-5 save percentage is the sixth best mark in the NHL and their .917 all situations save percentage is the third best in the league.
There is probably an argument to be made that this performance is not completely sustainable, and that there is some regression to be had for this group ahead (and especially Nedeljkovic). But even if that is the case they have at least given the Penguins a chance early in the season to stay somewhat competitive while the rest of the team figures everything out. The Penguins entered the season with a lot of “what ifs” and question marks with their roster. They needed at least a few of them to swing in their favor if they were going to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and have a chance to make another run in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang era. Goaltending was one of those questions. So far it also one of the biggest things that has swung in their favor.
Jarry deserves a lot of credit for that. So do his backups.