The New Jersey Devils entered the offseason with a list of areas needing improvement almost as long as a CVS receipt. Luckily for the organization, Shero and company were able to find a way to upgrade and improve most of the areas holding back the team last season.
Lack of scoring? The Devils drafted Jack Hughes with the number one overall pick. That was followed up with the savvy trade and signing of Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights. Fingers crossed Hall returns at 100%.
Need more defense? The NHL’s most dynamic personality in P.K. Subban joined the Devils following a steal of a trade from the Nashville Predators. Add that to the expected NHL debut of Ty Smith.
Need more physicality? Enter Wayne Simmonds. Come opening night, we’ll conveniently ignore the fact he was a fan favorite in Philadelphia. The Hayden for Quenneville swap adds some more size as well.
Goaltending? Well, that’s a different story.
Devils’ Goaltending Last Season
The Devils subpar goaltending is a major part of why they fell from a playoff spot to the Eastern Conference basement last season. Gone were the goaltending heroics of circa 2018 Keith Kinkaid, who regressed and struggled mightily before a trade sent him to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Cory Schneider missed the beginning for the season dealing with offseason surgery and took quite a while to even record his first win.
Gone are the days when Martin Brodeur was a constant and strong presence in net. Equally gone are the days when Schneider was one the NHL’s best and underrated goaltenders. While the team hopes that the 2019-20 season will be a lot different than the last, the Devils’ goaltending situation seems to be the only area lacking an upgrade. The only thing for sure is that Schneider and Mackenzie Blackwood will enter camp as the top two goaltenders. How will that fare for both of them?
The Case For And Against Mackenzie Blackwood
Coming in in relief during a blowout loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in December, Blackwood emerged as the Devils’ goaltender of the future. The youngster proved that he shares more than initials with the great Brodeur, with impressive performances in the crease as well. While the rest of the Devils’ team struggled, Blackwood continued to put up impressive numbers and continued to bail out the team to rare victories. While he had more than a few shaky outings, a loss in Calgary comes to mind, he was remarkably consistent in goal for a first-year major league player.
Even though he seemed to be the Devils de facto number one as their lost season dragged on, Blackwood only started 21 games. At 22 years old, you have to question the amount of workload he can handle at such a young age. One thing he lacks from Brodeur is a seemingly immediate rise to the occasion to play in the NHL. He’s just a kid who still has some growing pains.
Add to the fact that last year Blackwood and the Devils had relatively zero pressure. By time Blackwood got consistent starts, the Devils were far out of the playoff race. While Blackwood gave it his best every night, the Devils knew Blackwood’s performance wasn’t the difference between playing hockey in April or hitting the golf course after the regular season ended. This effectively allowed John Hynes and his coaching staff to play with house money and take a gamble on the young goaltender. If he wins great, if not, it’s not like they had much better options waiting in the wings.
The Case For and Against Cory Schneider
Flashback to Draft Day 2013. I’m sitting on my couch wondering who the Devils will take with the ninth overall pick, who would team up with Devils legend Ilya Kovalchuk and lead the team to their fourth Stanley Cup championship in 2014. Instead of what I felt was a foregone conclusion, Gary Bettman announced the pick was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for goaltender Cory Schneider.
The crowd at Prudential Center erupted in cheers. I, however, was a lot more skeptical. As a diehard Brodeur faithful, the subject of who would be the sequel act to the greatest goaltender of all time was a can I wanted to kick down the road for a long, long time. Surely, Brodeur wouldn’t retire until he was 50, right?
Okay, granted 18-year-old me was naïve that draft day because Schneider proved to be everything in a goaltender the Devils could ever want and more. Unfortunately, his best years of success came with heavy workloads in the back of teams that were built like a bargain bin Frankenstein of a roster instead of a Cup contender. Remember when Jordin Tootoo was on the top line and Michael Ryder was our leading goal scorer? Pepperidge Farm remembers, and so does Cory Schneider.
Unfortunately for Cory, as time went on, the team finally turned the corner toward a rebuild, injuries and father time took its toll and his play began to suffer. Gone were the days of highlight-reel saves on a nightly basis and were replaced by benching, while Kinkaid began to stop pucks as well as he tweeted emojis. Luckily, as the Devils rather depressing 2018-19 season came to a close, Cory picked up a few wins and began to show flashes of his former self. Hopefully, he continues the upward trajectory towards recovery.
The biggest argument for using Cory as the number one goaltender is that he’s getting paid number one money. While his $6 million yearly salary might pale in comparison to the deal that Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers, it still makes the marriage between him and the Devils difficult to dissolve. You don’t want to open up your checkbook for someone to ride the bench most of the season, do you?
The Final Verdict
Some have inquired on how the Devils will handle the situation between the two netminders and possibly split the starts between the two. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Usually, split starts using two goalie-type scenarios are used as short term solutions to relatively long term problems, such as the 2013-14 season when the Devils were reluctant to fully give control of the crease to Schneider.
Sure, there are instances where split goaltending duties work. Just this last season we saw both the New York Islanders with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss and the Carolina Hurricanes with Curtis McElhinney and Petr Mrazek find success with the system. Fast forward to free agency and the offseason and both those dynamic duos have been broken up and their replacements have left fan bases with questions, comments, and concerns.
Let’s say a team is successful in their quest to make the playoffs. That’s where split goaltending duties can cause problems, such as who should emerge as the number one? Prior to his injury, Curtis McElhinney was the Hurricanes most consistent playoff starter. There were some rumblings out of Boston that Jaroslav Halak should be the Bruins playoff started after Tuukka Rask struggled at points in the regular season. Obviously, Rask proved to be the right choice after posing borderline Conn Smythe numbers in a Stanley Cup finals loss.
The way I see it, Schneider enters the year as the undisputed number one, but with a catch. He enters the team with the upper hand in experience, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll be any worse this season after his brief revival at the end of last. Oh, and of course, the Devils are paying him $6 million and hope he plays like that.
Now when I say Schneider is the starter, I don’t think anyone expects him to handle the 60-game-plus workload he had during 2014-2018. But let’s say an even split for goaltending duties would put Schneider and Blackwood at 41 games apiece, barring any unexpected injuries or call ups. Until Blackwood proves that he can handle the workload of a full season number one and not the half-season he had last year, seeing Cory get the nod for 50 starts seems reasonable. That pencils in Blackwood for north of 30 starts on the year, more than a traditional backup and perfect for a developing goaltender. Thus the Devils crease will have their work divided more like Rask and Halak in Boston than McElhinney and Mrazek in Carolina.
Most teams that use split goaltending duties are in an almost win-now mode. While Carolina has an excellent pipeline of prospects, all eyes were on this last season to break that ten-year playoff drought. Although goaltending wasn’t their concern, the Columbus Blue Jackets were also in a now or never type scenario. The Devils are trying to build a foundation for the future, with the likes of Nico Hischier, Hughes, Hall (hopefully) and Blackwood around for the long run. Overworking Blackwood for a one-season pay off can drastically stunt the young player’s growth.
Of course, things are always subject to change. After all, training camp hasn’t even started yet. If Blackwood puts on a show and proves he can handle 50 games or more a year than I expect Hynes to put him up to the task.