VANCOUVER — Many hockey fans might not know of Alex Nedeljkovic, but NHL scouts definitely do.
The 18-year-old Plymouth Whaler is rated as the top CHL goaltender in this year’s NHL draft based on Central Scouting’s mid-season rankings. Not bad considering that he plays for a rebuilding, eighth-place Plymouth squad that has had difficulty trying to secure a playoff berth for a 23rd consecutive season.
“There’s a lot of great goalies around the country and around the world, so (the No. 1 CHL goaltender ranking) is a really big honour and I’m really proud of myself for what I’ve done,” said Nedeljkovic.
“But I know that, right now, it’s just a ranking. It means something, but it doesn’t mean as much as what’s going to happen on draft day. The big picture is that you want to be an elite draft (pick) and you want to have a place that you can go to.”
The place where he is from -- Parma, Ohio, in suburban Cleveland -- is not known as a hockey hotbed. But Nedeljkovic has overcome seemingly long odds to excel among North America's best junior players.
Heading into Thursday night's game against Niagara in St. Catharines, Ont., Nedeljkovic, sported a 23-26-0-7 record in a whopping 57 games played along with a 2.96 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. He was named the most recent CHL's goaltender of the week as he posted his a 2-0-0-1 record and earned his first shutout of the season.
He received a rare hook early in the first period as the Whalers were thumped 11-2 in Erie on Wednesday night. But on several nights, including back-to-back games, he has thrived while facing more than 50 shots. On the season, he has stopped 1,920 of 2,078 shots.
"Whether I get 50 shots one night but 25 the next night, I just try to take every night like it is," said Nedeljkovic, adding the high shots against have helped him deal with different situations from one game to the next.
Such an attitude reflects determination that he has shown since his mid-teens. In his first year of midget, while only in grade nine, he moved on his own to the Detroit area to play with a triple-A team. Then, in 2012-13, Nedeljkovic cracked the Whalers' roster as a 16-year-old, shuffled between the OHL club and the Michigan-based Metro Jets of the junior A North American Hockey League to get playing time early in the season, and took over the Whalers' No. 1 job after the Christmas break.
Nedeljkovic, who now lives with his family after his parents, younger brother and two younger sisters relocated to the Detroit area, went on to win the OHL's F.W. "Dinty" Moore Trophy in 2012-13 for posting the best goals-against average (2.28), along with a 19-2-1-1 record. He also backstopped the Whalers to the Western conference finals, stopping 61 shots over eventual-champion London, before the Knights ousted them in five games.
"He was awesome as a 16-year-old," said Whalers coach Mike Vellucci. "And then this year, with the pressure of being the No. 1 goaltender rated (for the NHL draft), he's exceeded those expectations as far as I'm concerned."
American players pose a risk to OHL clubs in the midget draft because they often prefer to try to take the college route to the NHL. But unbeknownst to many OHL teams, Whalers goalie coach Stan Matwijiw had coached Nedeljkovic previously and the goaltender had a strong desire to play for the club if it selected him in the OHL's midget draft.
He now has a chance to be an early 2014 NHL pick after only being chosen in the sixth round of the 2012 OHL draft. Prior to Thursday's contest, the Whalers held a 10-point cushion over ninth-place Kitchener following a slow start to the season.
"He's definitely been our (most valuable player)," said Vellucci. "He's seen a lot of shots. He's played very consistent all year long, and he's played a ton of games."
Nedeljkovic is continuing a tradition of outstanding Whaler goaltending that includes Michal Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals and Minnsota prospect Matt Hackett.
"I believe that he's further along than those guys at his age," said Vellucci, who has guided the Whalers since 2001-02. "None of those guys came in as a 16-year-old and was able to do what he's done. Some of those guys were really good technically and some were really athletic.
"I think he's got both of those (attributes), which is very unique in a goaltender."
The GM/coach said Nedeljkovic also handles the puck better than any goalie he has seen, and described him as extremely calm and a quiet leader who leads by example while maintaining an intense off-ice conditioning program.
"Most goalies are always introverted or just worried about his position, but he's a good team guy," said Vellucci.
Nedeljkovic strives to control the puck while staying just outside his crease, not making many "wild and crazy" movements and playing a compact game. He also keeps his rituals to a minimum, but still does a few things differently.
"When I'm getting dressed and I'm putting my equipment on, I usually put my right pad on first," he said. "So if I'm putting my skates on, I'll put my right skate on and then my left skate and then I'll put my right pad on and my left pad on. I usually do things like that from my right to my left. The only ritual I really have is tapping the posts before I leave the net or before a faceoff."