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Has the Devils Goaltending Future Become a Concern?

New Jersey Devils v Calgary Flames Photo by Terence Leung/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils current bout of losing has been precipitated largely but poor goaltending. As of this writing (pre-Flyers game) the Devils are on a 4-game losing streak on which we’ve given up 5 or more goals 3 times. This made me revisit a topic that I was concerned with this offseason. That topic is whether or not, when this team is finally ready to threaten for the Cup, will the goaltending still be there to facilitate a run. The biggest names for the franchise’s present and future are Cory Schneider, Keith Kinkaid, and Mackenzie Blackwood.

Cory Schneider

Let’s get this one out of the way first. You might remember a little a while ago, this offseason, I wrote an article about Cory eventually being a liability. I believe, for the most part, I’ve been vindicated in this position so far this season. Schneider has suffered a groin injury, but his performance even pre-injury is in line with what I claimed would happen due to his imminent, age-related decline.

As I said then, 2016-17 is obviously the fluke of the lot, but the overall trend is still a concern. Below is a graph of his GSAA (Goals Saved Above Average) and dSv% (Save Percentage vs Expectation). All data is 5v5 only.

via Corsica
*2017-18 is projected assuming 15 more starts for Cory, a total of 50

As you can see, his percentage values show a pretty clear decline over most of his career. He had a brief hiccup when he originally was traded, and then again last year. But even if you remove those two flukes, he still goes down in dSv% basically every year. In GSAA he spiked when he was given more opportunity with the Devils, but he actually cost us goals last year, before returning to his original age curve this year. Now, the “original age curve” is not equivalent to saying “immediately prior performance.” He is 32 and, as I said in my article, the only two goalie age curves I’ve seen (Burtch and Garik) have goalies peeking very early — somewhere between 23 and 26. I’ve asked around the analytics community about him in multiple places. In this thread, I asked Burtch and Garik, as well as Nick Mercadante (the guy who said Schneider was probably hiding an injury on the Hockey PDOCast) about the curves and they agreed on when decline starts, and Nick reiterated that he doesn’t think Cory will ever be the same.

I also asked Cole Anderson (@CrowdScoutSprts), about it. While he like’s Cory’s technical game a lot, he also agreed with me that his age curve doesn’t line up with the Devils’, agreed with Nick that staying healthy is a big “if” Cole has also done research on adjusting save percentage for expected goals and rebounds. His site has a Goalie Comparison Tool where you can view and compare performance in this model over time. Here is Cory’s rebound-adjusted save percentage over expectation.

via CrowdScoutSports

Note, once again, the precipitous decline to league-average goaltending. Interestingly, Cole’s model has this year and last year at roughly the same level — it views last year more favorably than most models I’ve seen. Nonetheless, the last two years, he has been in the 50th percentile which is basically the 30th best goalie in the NHL. When I say “league-average,” that is for all goalies -- he’s a below-average starting goalie already.

I love Cory. Like many here, I admire him for being the sole shining light in the abyss of darkness that was 2014-2016 — dragging us into pseudo-respectability while dangling lifeless on his shoulders. Unfortunately, those prime years simply do not line up with the prime years of out young roster. I was originally okay with this because as of that last writing, we had 3 potentially encouraging goalies in Wedgewood, Kinkaid, and Blackwood. Therefore, it seemed like there was a possibility that, by the time Schneider became a liability (the 2020 season IMO) one of those guys would be able to step in. We traded Scott Wedgewood to the Coyotes for a 5th round pick, and the other two? Well...

Keith Kinkaid

Kinkaid is no spring chicken, himself, at 28 years old, but if last season was an indication that the bottom had already fallen out from under Cory, then Kinkaid was next man up. He was better than Schneider by most metrics last year and is a bit younger so it was possible he could buy us another couple years until the prospects were ready. it turns out that Cory did resume his previous performance curve so that wasn’t needed, but given the current climate of the NHL and Schneider’s injuries/age, someone was going to need to come in a play around 20 games at least, and that would be Keith. Unfortunately, just as last year was a blip for Schneider, it seems the same was true for Kinkaid.

via CrowdScoutSports

These are smaller samples (hence the larger error bars) and so it was previously totally plausible that his performance was level. Now it seems less likely, with his rebound-adjusted save percentage over expectation decreasing for the 2nd time in 3 years.

At this point, if his current performance carries through the year, he’s dangerously close to “not an NHL goalie” territory. Given the previously small sample, this isn’t unthinkable, but it’s certainly surprising for someone who was a top 30 goalie the previous year.

So Cory is a below average starting goalie. Kinkaid has been a below average backup goalie. Someone needs to come save us. What of the third name I mentioned, former 2nd rounder and highest ranked North American goalie prospect, Mackenzie Blackwood?

Mackenzie Blackwood

via Elite Prospects

After struggling early last year, Blackwood eventually took the starting job in Albany and performed very well down the stretch, including a .928 Sv% in the playoffs. He came into this season expecting to retain his starting job and make a case for NHL time next year, or this year if injuries occurred. Those of you who only pay attention to the NHL Devils may have noticed a few names have been in net for our Devils not named Mackenzie Blackwood. That’s because after an stretch of 4 straight 5-goal games and a Sv% of 0.868, Blackwood was sent to the Devils ECHL-affiliate, the Adirondack Thunder, after acquiring Eddie Lack. Lack and Ken Appleby have both received starts for the Devils since then which tells you how much faith they have in Blackwood.

However, he came on strong late last season and there is reason to believe he may do the same this year. Since returning to Binghamton, Blackwood has not given up 5 goals in any of the 8 starts he’s had. He also has a 0.907 Sv% since returning which is exactly what he averaged last season. I asked fellow AAtJer, Jeff Ulmer about it and this is what he had to say:

This actually makes me kind of like the decision to keep Santini in the AHL even more. I don’t think Santini is one of our 6 best defenders in the NHL, but he certainly helps the Bing roster — especially defensively — and it’s possible that a large part of what ails Blackwood is that he’s on a Devils club that has gone from a playoff team in 2016-17, to the worst team in the AHL this year. After all, Ken Appleby has a Sv% of only .886, so it’s not like he’s lagging well behind.

While I’m still hopeful for Blackwood’s future, I’d be lying if I said my level of doubt hadn’t increased over the course of this season. It’s clear that he’s not ready yet, and given the NHL-roster struggles at the position, that alone is a little problematic.

What Do We Do?

Trades: In short, everything is on the table. Ray Shero should be hunting down suitors for Cory now and in the offseason, and he should be looking for other goalies to trade for as well.

As an example of the former, if the Oilers think they should be competing right now (next year), and Chiarelli thinks Schneider is better than Talbot (certainly possible) he’s shown a willingness to sacrifice talent/value to fill a need.

An example of the latter is, Braden Holtby is obviously the guy in Washington, and will be for the forseeable future. His backup, Philipp Grubauer, is having one of the most efficient seasons of any goalie this year, and he’s only 2 years younger than Holtby so it’s not like they think he’s their future. The price was high for Grubauer last year, but if you think you’re buying a starting goalie, that price may be appropriate.

Blackwood Development: Doing things like sending Santini down to the Bing may turn out to be very important moves in the long run. Blackwood is at a pivotal stage in his development, and languishing on the worst team in the AHL could really put a damper on that. I think sending him to the Thunder who are in the top third of the ECHL was definitely a necessary reset. I’ll be watching Jeff’s recaps closely to track his progress.

Give Other Guys a Shot: Keith has been having a rough go of it. I like that we gave Eddie Lack a shot, though he wasn’t particularly impressive. Appleby has only given up 3 goals in 55 shots and I think he’s made a case for himself to get a little longer of a look. I’m not opposed to giving Blackwood a shot even. If Appleby’s .887 AHL Sv% improved with a better team, maybe Blackwood’s would too. His only time against NHL-ish competition was the two preseason games in which he’s stopped 24/26 shots.

Concluding/Summarizing Thoughts and Feedback

Cory Schneider is a slightly below average NHL starter and falling — his prime doesn’t line up with that of the franchise. Keith Kinkaid is currently performing as a notably below average NHL backup. Mackenzie Blackwood is supposed to be the future and is currently a significantly below average AHL goalie (though may be turning it around).

The Devils goaltenders at every tier are sub-optimal. Given their impact on the game, poor goaltending is among the most likely variables to prevent a good roster from achieving success (see: Hurricanes). If the Devils want to capitalize on the intersection of the primes of the vets like Hall and Palmieri (26 years old) and the new guys like Hischier and Bratt (19 years old), they need to make sure that position isn’t going to hold them back.

What do you guys think? Are you worried about Schneider? Are you fine with Schneider, but the performance of Kinkaid and Blackwood concerns you? If something is problematic, what is the solution? Should it be in the draft? Free Agency? Trade? From within the current organization? Thanks for reading and leave your thoughts below!