The most glaring of the Devils’ weaknesses in the 2018-19 season has been the situation between the pipes, where they have had the third-worst save percentage in the entire league to this point. The tandem the team came into this season with, Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider, has (last night’s performance by Schneider notwithstanding) faltered in a big way. The team had rough patches with the situation in net in 2017-18, but few predicted just how south things would go this season for the Devils’ goaltenders. In December, though, the team was presented a lifeline in the form of a rookie netminder by the name of MacKenzie Blackwood. Blackwood has performed admirably since his initial call-up and done enough to think that he may be the answer in net going forward for the Devils. So with two different struggling players sitting in the NHL right now — one of them signed for major dollars for several more years — and a hope for the future with a still somewhat limited resume, what should the Devils do to get this figured out heading into 2019-20?
First, let’s look at how we got to our current position, starting with former starter and now-reclamation project Cory Schneider. Schneider had a tale of two seasons last year, with a great run of play among the best in the league up until December 27th and a complete implosion thereafter, save for a brief playoff revival against Tampa. He had offseason surgery to repair an issue with his hip, a self-evidently crucial body part for the goaltending position. Upon his return to the lineup in the fall, his starts were almost all disastrous, with the team getting lit up and him being chased from multiple games. After extending his run of regular season futility to oh-for-2018 in the win column, he returned to injured reserve for an apparent abdominal injury until yesterday’s start.
Opposite Schneider to start the season (well, technically Eddie Lack until Schneider’s initial return) was Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid had played the best hockey of his career down the stretch of the 2017-18 season and, along with Taylor Hall, had helped pull the Devils across the finish line for their first playoff berth since 2012. Heading into this season, in spite of a hiccup to start the playoffs, many fans felt he had potentially figured things out and could be a viable starter if Schneider never rebounded. It started out looking like that might be correct, with some stellar play over the opening four games, including two shutouts. Things devolved substantially from there, though, as Kinkaid’s play sagged more and more as the weeks past and he now holds a sub-.900 save percentage on the year.
The third part of the goaltending picture has been one of the few pleasant storylines from this Devils season. MacKenzie Blackwood was called up in mid-December after Schneider’s return to IR and immediately started winning fans over with his play. To this point, Blackwood has had 11 starts and two relief appearances in which he has compiled a 6-4-0 record and a .926 save percentage. It has been an encouraging start to his NHL career for the 22-year-old goalie, but it is also just 13 appearances, hardly a definitive sample. And while his 2018-19 has been great, he struggled mightily in 2017-18 in the AHL, which introduces a little bit of uncertainty to his outlook. As it stands, though, he seems to be the best hope for future stability in net for New Jersey.
So heading into the 2019-20 season, the Devils have some substantial decisions to make regarding the direction of the goaltending situation going forward. First, they will have to decide what to do with the two incumbent NHL goalies on the roster, and then they will have to decide how much faith they think they can place in their young potential goalie of the future. The way I see it, I think most people, whether it carries some risk or not, see Blackwood as the heir apparent to the starter’s net in New Jersey right now, so the conversation comes down to who he should be paired up with and how much of an insurance policy the team needs to be investing in.
So if Blackwood heads into next season as the de facto 1A in net, that means the Devils have some decisions to make for the other goaltenders currently occupying the NHL roster spots. So there are really three options available to them at this point, keep one, keep the other, or jettison both of them over the next several months.
Option 1: Keep Kinkaid, Buy Out Schneider
So based on performance alone over the past calendar year, it’s tough to argue that Kinkaid hasn’t performed substantially better than Schneider. He has struggled at times, particularly of late, but he has also had some very good stretches at the end of last season and the start of this one. He is three years younger than Schneider and will likely come cheap given his down year. The complicating factor here is that you must buy out (or bury) Schneider if you go this route. That buyout will be an expensive price tag to get rid of the veteran goaltender, as he still has three seasons at $6M on his deal after this one. If the Devils choose to buy him out, that would mean $2M of completely dead cap space for the next six years, which could become an issue as the Devils start handing out contracts to their core pieces over the next few seasons.
Given their respective track records, the ceiling for a Kinkaid rebound is probably lower than Schneider’s but while he has struggled recently, his issues in the past year have been orders of magnitude smaller than Schneider's. However, if Blackwood falters, you’re back to a situation where the Devils’ top goaltender has never successfully served as an NHL starter for a full season. This year was his first crack at being a real #1 and it has worked out quite poorly, so the risk remains pretty high in this scenario.
Option 2: Keep Schneider, Trade/Decline to Re-sign Kinkaid
Obviously, if the Devils are going this route, the wheels should alredy be turning on possibly shipping out Kinkaid to a willing trade partner. The issue here, though, is that they need Schneider to prove that he can competently play NHL-level hockey in net down the stretch of this season to have any confidence in keeping him. I think it would be fair for them to at least conclude that Kinkaid probably doesn’t fit into the long-term picture independent of Schneider’s situation if they go that route. A decision could be made on Schneider at a later date, but the Devils will likely have options to at least sign a goalie of Kinkaid’s caliber over the summer if it doesn’t work out.
On Schneider, I think the remainder of this season becomes his audition for his future on the team to an extent. If he can return to something resembling solid goaltending down the stretch, I think the Devils can justify going into next season with him in the picture as a #2. Last night was a good start on that front, but if that proves to be an aberration, the team may have to move on to option three.
Option 3: Move on from Both, Fill Void in Free Agency
If the Devils trade Kinkaid and subsequently do not feel comfortable handing any percentage of the keys back to Schneider next season, their alternative is to head out into the free agent market and find an answer in net or at least a stopgap/insurance policy for Blackwood. There is a pretty solid list of goalies due to be free agents this summer so it’s possible that the Devils will have some options to at least try to create a bit of redundancy behind Blackwood if they choose to go into next season with him as a starter or alternatively as part of a 1A/1B tandem with a free agent goalie.
This of course brings back the painful buyout they would have to swallow with Schneider. If they were reluctant to go that route, they could always hang onto him for one more year but plan to bury him in the AHL and have him try to figure out his game in Binghamton with the benefit of a full year of time beyond his hip surgery. If he performs well in Binghamton and one/both of the other goalies falter at the NHL level, he could become a valuable insurance policy himself.
Given how unpalatable I find a buyout of the magnitude that Schneider would require, my gut currently leans toward Option 2 as a plan for next season right now. If Schneider continues to look lost over the next couple months, they can still fall back on Option 3 in that scenario if need be, and if they can move Kinkaid, it would be nice to get another asset for an expiring contract.
So what are your thoughts on how to move forward with the goaltending, with the assumption that Blackwood somehow fits into the NHL picture to start next season?
What direction should the Devils go with their goaltending situation next season (assuming Mackenzie Blackwood is part of the NHL tandem)?
This poll is closed
Option 1: Keep Kinkaid, move on from Schneider
Option 2: Keep Schneider, move on from Kinkaid
Option 3: Move on from both, sign someone in free agency
Other (explain in the comments)
Stats in this piece retrieved via Hockey Reference.