The expectations for the Devils this year are a hard thing to pinpoint. It’s a topic that has generated a ton of discussion among Devils fans this offseason. Now in year two of the earnest rebuilding effort by Ray Shero and his staff, New Jersey is hoping to build on a positive 2015-16 (relative to expectations, at least) with another step forward. Given that the Devils were in the thick of the playoff discussion until February this past season, a step forward, standings-wise, would be knocking on the door of a playoff spot down the stretch in March and April.
With the potential improvements to the Devils’ offense, including the arrival of one of the league’s best wingers in Taylor Hall, the thought is that the Devils’ biggest weakness from last season may be mitigated, giving them an opportunity to take that step forward. Of course, the defensive corps, traditionally a strength in New Jersey, is probably iffy at best and outright bad at worst, which has given plenty of people pause when considering any advancement in the standings. Most predictions will likely point to the Devils still being able to limit goals to some extent, though, and the reasoning behind that has to do with one player: goaltender Cory Schneider.
Most of the digital ink spilled about the Devils this offseason has been about the potentially improved offense and the potentially unfortunate defense. As a team still very much in flux, pinpointing exactly what to expect from them is somewhat difficult at both ends of the ice. The only seemingly known quantity in all of it is the man in net, Schneider. Any opinion you see leading up to the season that includes the Devils anywhere in the vicinity of the playoffs will inevitably take Schneider’s excellence as a given. Without him, the Devils playoff odds are much more dire.
A great goaltender is obviously going to make a big difference on any team. This Devils team is counting on theirs perhaps more than any other team in the league, though. Because of a situation on defense that basically amounts to Andy Greene and six question marks, the Devils will be leaning hard on Cory Schneider to paper over their mistakes. Even if some of the young defenders do grow into new roles and the defense is serviceable, there will still inevitably be growing pains for a unit that will have lots of new faces and players under 25, making steady goaltending crucial. And it’s easy to just assume that will happen, given just how consistently excellent Schneider has been over the last half-decade.
No matter how great the goalie, though, nothing is a guarantee between the pipes at the NHL level. If Schneider were to have a poor season, or even a league-average one, the Devils could be dead on arrival in 2016-17. The Devils just can’t afford to get much less than greatness out of Schneider if they hope to compete for the playoffs in the East. An offense that, while potentially improved, will be mediocre-to-average at best, coupled with a paper thin defense make that a reality. Luckily for New Jersey, in the decidedly “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” world of goaltending, Schneider is as close to a sure thing as there is.
Since 2010, no goaltender in the NHL can top Schneider’s saver percentage. Among goalies who have started 150+ games in that timespan, Schneider is alone at the top with a .926, his closest pursuers being Henrik Lundqvist, Carey Price, and Tukka Rask at .923. To drive home just how consistently excellent he’s been, the list of goalies who have posted over a .920 every season since 2010-11 is just him and Lundqvist. There’s a pretty compelling argument to be made that Schneider is the very best goaltender in the league. That is certainly good news for a Devils team with major potential defensive shortcomings.
Still, even with perhaps the best goaltender in the league, there’s always risk in putting so many eggs in the “having an awesome goalie” basket. Goalies can have off years and goalies can get injured. Even teams that are theoretically more complete can be undone by issues in net. Tuukka Rask had a relatively pedestrian .915 save percentage last year and Boston fell short of the postseason. Carey Price got injured and Montreal completely imploded. If Schneider somehow struggles or, God forbid, ends up injured at some point, the team could be in a world of hurt. If the Devils hope to take another step forward and compete for the playoffs this season, Cory Schneider will have to be Cory Schneider. Anything less probably won’t do.