RALEIGH — Paul Schonfelder probably knew his playing career was coming to an end when his stint with the Cape Fear FireAntz was followed by stops with teams named the IceHogs and Mudbugs.
No matter — he had a fallback plan.
“I always had a background in coaching,” the Hurricanes’ first-year goalie coach said. “And it was something I was passionate about. When I stopped playing, I went right into coaching.”
Schonfelder might be one of the few new faces in Raleigh this season, but familiarity has certainly played a role in his contributions to this year’s team.
After years of doing private lessons and coaching in the Canadian and U.S. college ranks, Schonfelder got his break when he was hired by the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s, where he had played parts of three junior seasons. That led to high-profile opportunities with Hockey Canada.
Eventually, NHL teams came calling — and seemingly all at once.
“I got four phone calls within the span of like six hours from four different teams asking if I was interested in the development job,” the 40-year-old Schonfelder said of the summer of 2017.
Carolina was the only team with which he didn’t have any ties, but he did know the team’s top goalie prospect.
“When I was in Ottawa, I saw quite a bit of Ned,” Schonfelder said of goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, the 2014 second-round pick and former OHL star who was in his second pro season. “And, obviously, he was a star in junior and I knew what he was kind of all about. … He was kind of my main guy that I’d be working with. So it all just lined up. I had a good feeling, so that was that. I accepted the job and away you go.”
Schonfelder left behind the marathon days he was putting in as both a junior coach and doing private lessons to focus on the development job, splitting time between the American Hockey League’s Charlotte Checkers and with his wife and young daughter back in Ottawa while keeping tabs on all of the Hurricanes’ goalie prospects sprinkled throughout North America.
But Nedeljkovic was his main focus.
“When he was able to be there, he was putting in the work and looking at video just like we’re doing now,” Nedeljkovic said. “Even when he wasn’t there, he was watching video, watching games and sending me clips.”
Under Schonfelder’s tutelage, Nedeljkovic was named the AHL’s top goalie for the 2018-19 season with the Checkers, and the duo won a Calder Cup together that year.
When Carolina switched its AHL affiliation to Chicago before this season, the organization moved Jason Muzzatti to its development role and promoted Schonfelder to the NHL team.
“The changing of the minor league team, the location of that, [Muzzatti] actually lives a lot closer to [Chicago],” coach Rod Brind’Amour said of the flip. “There were just a lot of things that made that move. I think the relationship that Paul has with Ned didn’t hurt that.”
The young goalie found himself in a three-way competition and on waivers this season, and Schonfelder was tasked with managing the trio that also includes Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, serving as coach and “sounding board” for the members of the crowded crease.
Having Schonfelder — who calls his approach “open-minded” — with him in Raleigh helped Nedeljkovic stay patient and wait for his chance.
“He always helped me get better, and you can’t ask for much more,” Nedeljkovic said. “I really appreciate everything he’s done for me. It’s been fun to grow and progress, and for both of us to take the jump together and to do this has been awesome.”
The wait was worth it. Nedeljkovic is 15-4-3 with an NHL-best 1.89 goals-against average and .932 save percentage among goalies with at least 11 starts, and he is a candidate for the Calder Trophy given to the NHL’s top rookie.
“Now that he’s actually getting the opportunity, he’s taken advantage of it,” Schonfelder said of Nedeljkovic. “He’s prepared himself and, so far, it’s been really good for him.”
The same goes for other Hurricanes players on that Checkers championship team — Jake Bean, Morgan Geekie, Martin Necas and Steven Lorentz — who have all carved out roles on this year’s NHL squad.
“When you win a championship with people, it’s a special bond, right?” Schonfelder said. “And when you have that special bond, that championship, anybody that gets rewarded and moves on and is in a better place, you’re super happy to see it.”
Schonfelder now has a chance to make even more bonds with a championship-level team, this time for hockey’s top prize.
“The culture that we have here now — I haven’t been around a long time, but I’ve been around enough to realize a bad one and a really good one,” Schonfelder said. “What Rod’s done with this team and the culture is first-class. … Everybody’s pulling the rope in the right direction.”