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A Rebound from Schneider Would Go a Long Way Towards a Playoff Return for New Jersey

Just a couple seasons ago, Cory Schneider was regarded as one of the few strengths this team had. After a couple of down campaigns plagued by nagging injuries, expectations have shifted greatly for #35. After offseason surgery, though, can a healthy Schneider return to being one of the engines powering the Devils in 2018-19?

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Entering the 2018-19 season, there are many questions surrounding whether the Devils can match the success they had in 2017-18. The forwards group has some potential gaps that rely on players stepping up, the defensive group remains thin despite looking substantially better than it did a year ago, and the coaching staff has experienced some substantial turnover. Perhaps the biggest wild card dictating the Devils potential success this season, though, is their goaltending. A year ago, the Devils got very good performances in separate stretches from each of their two netminders, but overall, the team was-below average in save percentage for the season.

One could argue that below-average should be the expectation for this team’s goaltending tandem, so perhaps a rebound is not in the cards. Cory Schneider, the team’s expected starter, is now coming off back-to-back sub-par seasons in net after reaching 30 years of age. He has been plagued by injury and has put up save percentages of .908 and .907 respectively the last two seasons. Behind him is backup Keith Kinkaid, who, despite taking the starters mantle at the end of last season with a fantastic run of play (which obviously came at an extremely opportune time for New Jersey), still ended up with fairly pedestrian numbers, with a .913 sv% and a 50% quality start percentage overall due to his rough first two-thirds of the season. Kinkaid, now entering his age 29 season, is not a particularly young goaltender either.

With two goalies who ostensibly amount to an aging, declining starter and a career backup now pushing 30, it’s easy to see why some are not feeling rosy about the Devils’ situation in net. I think the outlook might be a bit better than it seems at first glance, though. At the very least, I don’t think the Devils ending up with above-average play from their goalies is that farfetched. The key to that happening, though, is a rebound from Cory Schneider. Kinkaid has proven to be a solid backup and a good insurance policy, but if the Devils are hoping to rise above middle-of-the-pack goaltending, Schneider remains the key.

On the heels of the last two seasons, plenty of people are down on Schneider’s chances at a return to form for New Jersey, but I think it’s a little bit early to write him off. The last two seasons are a major concern, both due to the overall play and the injury issues, but at the same time they don’t erase the previous six seasons where he was arguably the best goalie in the entire league in the aggregate. Can he reach those extended heights again? Probably not, but it also doesn’t seem farfetched for him to rebound to being a solid or above-average NHL starter again in his 30’s given how great he was in his 20’s

The fact that he had two sub-standard seasons in a row gives people understandable pause, but a goalie having down years mid-career is not an unprecedented thing. Devils legend Martin Brodeur had a pronounced trough in save percentage in the middle of his career and went on to follow it up with four Vezina trophies beyond the age of 30. Mike Smith looked done with hideous seasons at ages 27 and 28 and then put up a .930 season immediately afterward and has been largely above-average since then. Pekka Rinne, who had surgery performed in 2013 similar to what Schneider had this summer, is probably the most encouraging example if you’re a Devils fan. Rinne, now in his mid-30s and five years removed from that surgery, has been very good overall (with ups and downs) and just secured the Vezina Trophy with a great season in Nashville.

Of course, plenty of examples of goalies who started tailing off around 30 and were just cooked also exist. Marty Turco was a wall prior to age 30 and barely scratched .910 again afterward. J.S. Giguere was very good up until age 31, when he fell off and didn’t really recover. The aging curve for goalies, like any other player, is unforgiving in the aggregate.

The point, though, is that every goalie ages differently, and pretty rarely do guys just completely lose it after having a run as elite as Schneider did from 2010-2016. Even as recently as the first half of last season we saw Schneider performing like a top-5 goalie in the league. He has been below average overall and has had some major rough patches, but he is a goaltender who was about as consistently great as anyone could ever hope for the first decade of his pro career. His past two seasons are data points that should absolutely not be dismissed but an analysis that hand-waves the Devils goaltending as a certain weakness (say, the one over at the Athletic) strikes me as somewhat incomplete.

We know that Schneider can play the position as well as anyone in the league when he is healthy (even including the last two dud campaigns, he is still 3rd overall in sv% since 2010 [min 200 starts]). Will this surgery allow him to feel 100% again? That remains to be seen, of course, and hip issues can be tricky. But if the Devils have a healthy Schneider at their disposal to go with a capable backup in Kinkaid, it doesn’t seem outrageous to think they could have a goaltending tandem comfortably in the top half of the league.