The previously quiet Carolina Hurricanes made their first splash of the offseason less than an hour after the expansion-draft roster freeze was lifted Thursday, and it was a move that had many in the hockey world scratching their heads.
The Canes sent homegrown Calder finalist Alex Nedeljkovic, a 25-year-old restricted free agent and their one-time “goalie of the future,” to the Detroit Red Wings for the negotiating rights to 32-year-old unrestricted free agent goalie Jonathan Bernier and the 94th pick in this year’s draft.
The Red Wings, a team in need of a future of their own in net, turned around and immediately signed Nedeljkovic for $3 million over two years.
On the surface, it’s a head-scratcher. It seemed like Nedeljkovic had finally turned a corner for the team that drafted him in the second round in 2014, posting a league-best goals-against average (1.90) and save percentage (.932) after being placed on waivers early in the 2020-21 season.
So what’s behind the move? Three factors turned what looked like a no-brainer re-signing into a farewell:
1. Arbitration could have gotten weird
Nedeljkovic was in a unique situation as a 25-year-old pending RFA goalie with only so many NHL games under his belt. The way he swooped in during Petr Mrazek’s injury and excelled had potentially earned him a big payday. He was arbitration-eligible and asking for a contract with a $3.5 million average annual value. That was already high from the Hurricanes’ perspective, and if they went to arbitration, there was some risk of the salary being set even higher.
The lack of comparables to point to — goaltenders who had made it to the NHL on similar paths — made it hard to predict the outcome.
“We tried to get a contract done with Ned, and we couldn’t get one done. The agent was playing very hard,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell said in an exclusive interview with The Athletic on Thursday. “He’s got an arbitration case that (could have paid him) somewhere around $3, $4, $5 million.
“He could get something done in Detroit, and we just made a decision that we weren’t going to go to arbitration. We love Ned. He played well for us. But it’s hard to have that kind of money in a cap world. We made an organizational decision that we were going in a different direction.”
But why couldn’t the Hurricanes have avoided arbitration by just paying the $3.5 million he was seeking?
2. Committed to winning now
While Nedeljkovic has tons of potential and is coming off a great season, the Canes weren’t ready to take a big-money chance on a player with a relatively small sample of success.
Let’s remember that Nedeljkovic has only played 29 regular-season NHL games. Yes, he has a .928 save percentage over that span and was in the top five in goals saved above expectation this past season, but he also has a .904 save percentage across a concerning larger sample: 154 games in the AHL. And in his only NHL season with more than one game played before 2020-21, he had an .887 save percentage and 3.05 GAA.
I expect Nedeljkovic to enjoy a long NHL career, but these next two years are huge for the Canes in their Cup-contending window, and Waddell says the Hurricanes are going to spend but need to spend wisely.
“You probably can’t have two goalies at $3.5 to $4 million. You gotta pay one, then one hopefully on the lesser side,” he said. “And here’s the thing: We aren’t trying to save money — we’re trying to save cap space. That’s the whole idea.
“We’re fortunate to have (owner) Tom (Dundon), who is willing to go to the cap, but now we have to manage the cap and make the right decisions with the money we have.”
Waddell also confirmed that the Hurricanes are still talking to UFA Dougie Hamilton and looking to potentially re-sign him. That and the need to re-sign RFA Andrei Svechnikov play a part in saving cap space where they can.
And could Bernier be the answer for the cheaper No. 2 they’re looking for?
“We’re going to talk to him, for sure,” Waddell said. “We’ll see where he’s at and take it from there. It’s an option.”