Considering the real tight situation the New Jersey Devils have painted themselves into over the last couple months, it is obvious why there are a lot of nervous, negative thoughts among Devils fans. Watching this team do so well for the first half of the season, go for it with some deadline trades, only to see them miss out on the playoffs for another year would be quite painful. The trajectory of this team should continue to be upwards over the next several years, but getting in this year has a large symbolic meaning around it, and could actually carry huge meaning if it helps to maintain the likes of Taylor Hall, without whom this team would simply be subpar. Hall clearly wants to play for a contender, and that needs to happen here in NJ.
One thing that absolutely, 100% needs to happen for this team to prevent this slow motion train wreck from continuing is improved play from the goaltending position, specifically Cory Schneider. Keith Kinkaid has actually been playing fairly well recently. Since February 15th, he has produced better than a .930 save percentage in 5 of his 7 starts. That is real quality production, and is what this team needs moving forward. Of course, the Devils won 5 of those 7 starts as well, so it tends to pan out that way.
Cory, however, has not been the same. His career .921 save percentage seems like a pipe dream as compared to the numbers he has been putting up. In his three starts since returning from injury, he has failed to reach a .900 save percentage in any of them, and all three have resulted in losses. Granted he has played quality teams in Florida, Vegas and Winnipeg, but as Mike noted yesterday, basically the rest of the schedule is against quality teams, so he needs to figure that out, and figure it out as soon as possible.
What needs to happen, ideally, is for Cory to experience some positive regression with respect to his career numbers. CJ did note in an article last month that he will most likely continue to decline in performance as he gets older. However, that decline should not be so precipitous as to happen all at once, and happen literally right now. That is a decline that will most likely continue to happen over the next several years. For what we are all looking for, a playoff berth this season, there is every reason to expect his play should improve as he gets his legs under him and regains form as he becomes further removed from the injury. Any sort of positive regression back to a respectable save percentage this season would give the Devils a drastically improved chance to at least go .500 the rest of the way. That still might not be enough, but it is better than the trajectory they are currently on.
Even with this poor stretch of games, Cory still has a .912 save percentage on the season, which is definitely attainable for him moving forward. His career average is 9 points higher than that, but if we assume some sort of decline, .912 should still certainly be possible the rest of the way. That would be significantly better than he has been performing since the calendar turned to 2018, and that sort of improvement alone would give New Jersey a much better chance to right the ship. Just look at his performances in 2018 so far, thanks to NHL.com:
I mean, that might not even be replacement level play right there from Schneider. That is historically low for him, and you cannot expect that to simply continue the rest of the way. If it does, then clearly he is either still injured or so far in his own head that he cannot play. Again, his overall performance might continue to decline as he ages, but there is no way those stats listed above can be explained by a simple decline in performance due to age. That is a serious fall off of a cliff.
But the thing with numbers is that they tend to regress towards the mean over time. And if Cory is healthy and continues to gain starts throughout March, his numbers should theoretically improve and come more back to the mean. Where that mean is exactly is impossible to tell, but considering his current season save percentage is at .912 even with all of those horrible starts, that is a decent number to latch on to. If Cory can hover around .912 the rest of the way, you’re looking at games where the Devils need to only score 3 goals to either win or bring the game to overtime, not 4 or 5 goals. And for a team that is still struggling with secondary scoring, that would be a monster help.
In the end, is goaltending the only area that needs to get better if the Devils are going to be able to manage this upcoming road trip and still hold onto a playoff position? Absolutely not. However, it is one of the major areas that do need improvement, especially when looking at Schneider. If he keeps performing like he has since the beginning of January, the Devils will have no chance to hold onto their current wild card position. Him being able to produce respectable numbers again are vital to the hopes of this team. While that may not entirely fall on him, as save percentages are also partly the results of team defense, the majority of it does fall on his shoulders. Therefore, here is to hoping for some positive regression in Schneider’s numbers over the next month, and may they lead to some much needed Devils’ victories!