The Parallel Paths of Vitek Vanecek and Alex Nedeljkovic

They were born just two days apart. Both were second round draft picks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and drafted just two picks apart. During their time in their drafting team’s organizations, both were ultimately passed on the depth chart, as their teams preferred other options in goal to them.

So neither netminder really had a chance to earn a full time position in the NHL until 2021. Due to health issues with other goaltending options, they both earned their team’s number one goalie role during the 2020-21 out of desperation. However, on the eve of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, they were both sent away from their original teams, one via trade and the other via the expansion draft.

The goalies in this story are Vitek Vanecek of the Washington Capitals and Alex Nedeljkovic of the Carolina Hurricanes. The parallels in their lives began when they were born. Vanecek was born on January 9, 1996 in Havlickuv Brod, Czech Republic. Nedeljkovic was born on January 7, 1996 in Parma, Ohio. Both are of Slavic descent with Vanecek being Czech while Nedeljkovic is an American of Serbian descent, as his grandparents were from Ljubovija, Serbia.

Career Before 2020-21 Season

Both goaltenders were drafted in the second round of the 2014 NHL Draft. The Carolina Hurricanes drafted Nedeljkovic with the 37th pick overall. The Washington Capitals drafted Vanecek two picks later with pick #39 overall. Both represented their nations in international competition, including the IIHF World Junior Championships of 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Both netminders spent an extended apprenticeship in the AHL, with Vanecek playing for the Hershey Bears and Nedeljkovic with the Charlotte Checkers. Vanecek started his professional career one year sooner, 2015-16, primarily playing at the ECHL level with the South Carolina Stingrays, while Nedeljkovic spent that season in junior hockey.

Both primarily played at the AHL level from 2017-18 through 2019-20, although each played a small number of games at the ECHL level with Nedeljkovic spending 12 games with the Florida Everblades in 2016-17 while Vanecek spent two games with the Stingrays in 2017-18.

The goaltenders opposed each other in the second round of the 2019 Calder Cup playoffs with Nedeljkovic and the Checkers sweeping Vanecek and the Bears. Nedeljkovic was generally the number one goalie for the Checkers, while Vanecek generally shared the net with another young goalie,  either Phoenix Copley or Ilya Samsonov.

Nedeljkovic had occasional opportunities to play with the Hurricanes as their goalie situation was generally less settled than the Capitals. Braden Holtby and his backups performed better than Carolina’s goalies and also enjoyed better health, yielding fewer opportunities for callups from the minor leagues.

Nedeljkovic was named AHL goaltender of the year for the 2018-19 season and helped the Checkers win the Calder Cup that season.

Related: Sports Illustrated: Champions Hard Work Pays Off For Charlotte Checkers

2020-21 Season

Vanecek

With the departure of Braden Holtby following the 2019-20 season, the plan for the Capitals for the 2020-21 season was to have Ilya Samsonov, the prior year’s backup, to be the primary goaltender. The Capitals drafted him in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft and, upon his acquisition, immediately vaulted ahead of Vanecek among Capitals goalie prospects, in the estimation of the Caps’ management.

The Capitals also signed former long-time New York Rangers goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, a former Vezina trophy winner, to serve as the Capitals’ 1B goalie (or possible 1A goalie) and also to be a mentor to Samsonov. Vanecek would serve on the Taxi Squad as a backup to both of them, provided he could clear waivers. However, the plan was scuttled when Lundqvist was discovered to have a heart condition that necessitated surgery that would keep him out for the whole season. So now Vanecek would be one of the Capitals two regular goalies.

Vanecek and Samsonov would basically alternate starts until one of them could seize the number one position. Then Samsonov tested positive for Covid-19 on January 19, and was placed on the NHL’s protocol list the next day. Due to the effects of the virus, he was not able to play an NHL game again until February 28. Thus, Vanecek played in nearly every game since January 19 through February 27 and became the team’s number one goalie by default.

Once Samsonov returned, they both played on a nearly alternating basis. But once again, Samsonov was out. He was benched for disciplinary reasons on May 3. Then, it was announced on May 7 that he was in Covid protocol again.

So, once again, Vanecek was the number one goalie – until he was injured in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins and was unable to play for the remainder of the playoffs. Samsonov finally returned from Covid protocol in time for Game 3 of the playoffs and was the primary goalie for the Capitals for the remainder of their first round series.

Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

For the 2020-21 season, Vanecek played in 37 games for the Capitals, posted a record of 21-10-4, had a .908 save percentage a goals against average of 2.69 and two shutouts. He was the primary goaltender for the season where the Caps tied the Pittsburgh Penguins in standings points, but finished in second place due to tie breakers.

Nedeljkovic

The plan for the Carolina Hurricanes before the 2020-21 season was to have Petr Mrazek and James Reimer in goal, the same goalies they had for the 2019-20 season. They figured Nedeljkovic would serve on the taxi squad as the third goalie and be used for emergencies.

In order to send him to the taxi squad, the Canes had to place him on waivers and wait for him to clear, which they did on January 12. He cleared waivers and was expected to be used for emergencies only, which was not a desirable fate for a goalie who was once considered the team’s goalie of the future.

Photo: NHL

But then on January 30, Petr Mrazek collided with a teammate, breaking his thumb. Now Nedeljkovic would get his chance with the Canes. He ultimately played in 23 games for the Hurricanes during the 2020-21 season and posted a record of 15-5-3, with a save percentage of .932, a goals against average of 1.90, with three shutouts. His 1.90 goals-against average and .932 save percentage ended up first in the NHL among goaltenders who played at least 20 games.

He played in nine playoff games, posting a 4-5 record. He had a save percentage of .920, a goals against average of 2.17, and one shutout.

Off Season Moves

Nedeljkovic

At the end of the season, both Petr Mrazek, the Canes’ former starter, and James Reimer, the backup, were unrestricted free agents. Nedeljkovic, meanwhile, was becoming a restricted free agent with arbitration rights. So that meant the prospect of Nedeljkovic earning a sizable raise was very possible.

General manager Don Waddell negotiated with Alex Nedeljkovic, with the presumption that he was either a backup or a 1B, as part of a tandem. He figured he had not seen enough of Nedeljkovic’s performance to trust him with the cap hit to make him the primary goalie of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The plan was to acquire a veteran starting goalie.

Nearly an hour after the NHL freeze on trades ended on July 21, Carolina traded Alex Nedeljkovic to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for pending UFA Jonathan Bernier and the 94th pick in the upcoming NHL Draft.

Ultimately, both Mrazek and Reimer, along with newly acquired Jonathan Bernier left the Hurricanes in free agency. The Canes ended up signing Frederik Anderson, the long-time primary goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who ironically was a former first round pick (2010) of the Hurricanes, but was never signed. He returned to the NHL draft and was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks before ending up with Toronto. The Canes also signed Antti Rantta, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to be his backup.

Vanecek

The Capitals goalie tandem from the 2020-21 season was Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov. They would need to expose one of them to the upcoming expansion draft. With Samsonov out on Covid protocol twice, Vanecek played in more games for the team. However, Sansonov was perceived to have a higher ceiling. Thus, Vanecek was exposed in the expansion draft.

On the morning of July 21, news from TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Kraken  selected Vanecek as their pick from the Washington Capitals for the expansion draft, which turned out to be the case. It appeared that Vanecek would be the backup in Seattle to Darren Driedger, formerly of the Florida Panthers. While Driedger had outperformed Sergei Bobrovsky, the latter had a no-movement clause that he was unwilling to waive; hence, the exposure of Driedger in the draft.

Vanecek made farewell posts to Washington on social media, with everyone wishing him good luck in Seattle.

However, on July 28, the Kraken signed Colorado Avalanche (and former Capitals) goalie,  Philipp Grubauer to a six-year contract, which now made Vanecek expendable, given that the Kraken still had Driedger. The Capitals re-acquired Vanecek in exchange for a second round pick in the 2023 draft. They previously traded Brendan Dillon to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for two draft picks and one of those draft picks was then sent to Seattle for Vanecek’s return.

By Diane Doyle

About Diane Doyle

Been a Caps fan since November 1975 when attending a game with my then boyfriend and now husband.
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