After last season with controversy abound in the goal crease, the New Jersey Devils enter a campaign for the first time since 1992-93 without Martin Brodeur on the roster, let alone as their starting goaltender. After signing a lucrative contract extension this summer, Cory Schneider comes into this season as New Jersey's unquestioned #1, while Scott Clemmensen returns for another stint with New Jersey to compete for the backup job mainly with Keith Kinkaid, who had a nice season in Albany last year.
The man who loses the competition for the backup will begin the season in Albany, paired with Scott Wedgewood, who has already been assigned to Albany. Maxime Clermont, who was assigned as well, will probably see himself bounced around a bit between Albany and the ECHL again, while Anthony Brodeur, in a move reminiscent of last season, was assigned back to his junior club, the Gatineau Olympiques.
If you're looking for an article about controversy at any one position on the Devils roster, I can safely assure you this is not the article you are looking for; while last year there was almost no competition among the goaltenders, this year we at least have the aforementioned backup job competition, but that's where it ends. There were no goaltender PTOs for good reason with New Jersey, and that's because for the upcoming season, they already have everything they need.
A Look Back at 2013-2014
All stats courtesy of nhl.com, theahl.com, echl.com, and theqmjhl.ca. Of note with these stats is that the NHL combines shootout and overtime losses, however for the purpose of this chart, I looked back at the stats and separated them. The AHL does not track overtime losses, so that area was left empty.
Last season saw Martin Brodeur and Schneider splitting the net almost equally during the season, with one goaltender having much better results than the other in terms of individual statistics. Marty continued to decline as Father Time catches up to him; his save percentage was just above .900, and his GAA ballooned to 2.51, the second-highest of his career if you exclude the 1991-1992 season where he appeared in only 4 games. He finished the season with a better record (19-14-6), however he consistently let in more goals, and gave up quite a few "soft" goals. The team scored more for him, and part of that I think was because he was better at moving the puck, and acting as a pseudo-sixth skater on the ice.
Schneider meanwhile was getting a lot less goal support from Brodeur even in the beginning of the season, yet was putting up superior individual stats. He would finish the season with a save percentage of .921 and a GAA of 1.97, good enough for third among the NHL league leaders. (Note: I really feel the NHL needs to establish a set number of games played to be considered a league leader; the two players ahead of Cory [Josh Harding and Brian Elliott] only appeared in 29 and 31 games respectively. Cory's 45 games played is a bit low too, but at least he appeared in more than half of his team's games.) His 16-15-12 record is deceiving, as 8 of his overtime losses came in the shootout; while Cory was less than spectacular in the skills competition, his shooters were even worse, so he can't be held completely at fault for that ugly number. His puck handling steadily improved throughout the season, and his strong second half play kept the Devils in the playoff race until all of their shootout losses extinguished the season's flame.
If Kinkaid graduates to the NHL this season, New Jersey's prospect cupboard will become thin on goalies, however that's not really something that I percieve as a problem at the moment. Schneider is entering the prime of his career, and Kinkaid and Wedgewood are both still fairly young players, meaning that at the NHL level, New Jersey will be set for quite some time; the Devils' minor league affiliates (mainly Albany) may have their records suffer a bit as a result, but if Wedgewood continues to improve his game, there's no reason Albany won't continue to succeed as well.
Keith had a respectable AHL season last year, posting a career high in wins while improving both his save percentage and his GAA from the previous season. He was Albany's starter for most of the season, but some good play by both resulted in some time splitting towards the end of the season. Kindkaid's strong play would help to bring Albany to the AHL postseason for the first time since they replaced the Lowell Devils as New Jersey's AHL affiliate. After watching both he and Clemmensen this preseason, Keith seems to me to be performing at a higher level, and should wind up in New Jersey this season.
Scott meanwhile had a rough start to his AHL campaign, but got progressively better as the year went on. He would finish just below .900 in save percentage, but managed to post a GAA of just 2.39. He also posted 4 shutouts, just as his partner did. It's important to note as well that the past season was Wedgewood's first full season in the AHL; should he start the season as Albany's #1 and be able to establish a constant playing rhythm, we might see a positive jump in his stats.
Things get a bit murkier after the discussion of the AHL goaltenders; Maxime Clermont posted some decent numbers with Albany, but the sample size was too small to mean anything. Looking at his ECHL numbers has me more concerned; for a league that calls itself "'AA' Hockey" Clermont would need to put up some good numbers to advance his career, yet his save percentage has been sub-.900 every season he has played. On top of that his GAA has been above 3 for every ECHL team he has played for. While it might be early to rule him out, Clermont at this point projects to be nothing more than a minor leaguer.
Anthony Brodeur's future is murky mostly because he is still in juniors, and has only played one season there; it's just too early to predict how his future will pan out. While his .887 save percentage and 2.90 GAA are pretty pedestrian, he did make 34 saves on 36 shots during the preseason's rookie/AHL game against the Rangers. I say giving Anthony another season in juniors is necessary to be able to make a solid evaluation of his game and skill set.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, there is no contest going into this season that Cory Schneider will be New Jersey's starting goaltender; the question surrounding him is based on his workload, specifically the fact that Schneider has yet to play more than 45 games in a season. I'm not as worried as many of his critics are; I think Cory will be able to handle more games without his stats suffering, provided he gets the proper goal support. Cory seemed to be on top of his game when he was able to establish a rhythm in net, and kept the team in games that they should have been blown out of.
If Cory can keep his numbers in line with his career averages, the Devils will need to score 2-3 goals per game to be able to win; the problems comes down to whether the rest of the team in front of him will be able to score enough goals so that Cory doesn't have to stand on his head night in and night out. While Schneider's NHL sample size in terms of games played in somewhat small, he's shown that his has the athleticism and ability necessary to be a top goaltender if given the chance. Good goalies can however seem to be performing poorly if the team in front of them doesn't play well (see also: Miller, Ryan) so while it will be important for Cory to keep the puck out of the net, it is imperative that the Devils find some scoring this season.
Whoever gets the backup job just needs to be solid in back-to-backs or whenever Schneider needs a rest; if Cory gets injured, I'm not sure Kinkaid is ready to handle a full workload, and I know that Clemmensen no longer has what it takes to carry the team. Both are capable backups, but that's just it; they're backups at this point. Kinkaid could one day possibly be a starter in the NHL, but with his lack of experience at this point, it would be a long season if Schneider is to miss any extended amount of time.
The Cory Schneider Era officially begins this season, and I'd like your take on the matter. Do you think Cory can handle a full season as the starting goalie? Will he be able to handle the puck and lead the team as Brodeur did? Who will be the backup goaltender and will they be capable of easing Schneider's burden? Leave any and all comments below and as always, thank you for reading!