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A Roller Coaster in Net: 2018-19 Devils Goaltending Postmortem

The Devils had just three goaltenders appear on the ice in the 2018-19 season. In spite of that fact, it was one of the most whiplash-inducing seasons in net in the team’s history. Today, we take a look at where things started, where they ended, and the roller coaster in between in goal.

Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Goaltending was a wild ride for the New Jersey Devils this season. The team had probably its worst overall season in net in decades, save maybe the disastrous abbreviated 2013 season. But while the performance overall was certainly not very good, there were equal parts hope to go with the despair the fanbase experienced along the way. Remarkably, despite what felt like a ton of upheaval in goal at times, only three goalies ended up playing a minute in the NHL for the Devils this season: Keith Kinkaid, Cory Schneider, and MacKenzie Blackwood. Despite just the three goalies making an appearance, though, a lot changed for New Jersey over the last 82 games.

Start of the Season

Coming into 2018-19, the Devils were a team with perhaps some questions at goalie, but seemed to have the bodies to at least put together a serviceable tandem. Keith Kinkaid was just coming off the best run of his career in a last few months that helped carry the team into the postseason. Cory Schneider, meanwhile, had struggled in the back half of 2017-18, but had shown well in the playoffs against the Lightning and had also undergone much-needed surgery over the summer to repair an ailing hip issue. Given Kinkaid’s overall track record and some of Schneider’s troubles in the preceding years, it wasn’t a perfect situation in net but things seemed to be set up okay for 2018-19.

Down in the minors, MacKenzie Blackwood would head into the season with a ton to prove after a brutal 2017-18 that saw him demoted to the ECHL for a stretch. With the NHL level seemingly set, the focus was mostly on Blackwood proving that he could be a viable professional goalie, let alone an NHL one. So the Devils had a clear depth chart of Kinkaid and Schneider in the NHL and then Blackwood along with Eddie Lack and some more fringe goalie prospects in the minors. By New Years Day 2019, this depth chart would be completely upended, though.

Roller Coaster Season

It was a tale of several seasons at the goaltending position for New Jersey, as the status quo was upended multiple times for each of the three goaltenders who appeared for the team in 2018-19. The situation that the team was in at the start of the season changed substantially by the time April arrived. In the first few games, Keith Kinkaid looked ascendant. When Schneider returned for the first time from injury, he looked cooked. Blackwood was was in Binghamton trying to rebound from his awful 2017-18. As we now know, everyone was in very different positions by the end of the season. To get a broad picture of how things went for each of the three goalies, let’s take a look at the month by month splits.

2018-19 Monthly Goalie Splits for NJ
Splits via Hockey Reference

The clear trend that emerges here is the one that we all pretty much observed this season. Kinkaid started decently enough, but eventually imploded with a starter’s workload. Schneider was a complete disaster upon his first return from injury but then regrouped for a great finish after a second extended absence. And Blackwood, after being called up, was largely great aside from a few hiccups along the way.

Beyond the save percentage splits, a breakdown of each goaltender’s quality starts and “really bad starts” is also provided below. Each stat was developed by Rob Vollman for the Hockey Abstract. A quality start (QS) is any start in which the goaltender provides above average sv% (which this year was .905) or, if fewer than 20 shots are faced, a sv% over .885. A really bad start (RBS) is any start in which the goalie puts up a sub-.850 sv%. These are imperfect measures but can provide a good idea of how often a goalie is giving his team a good chance to win and how often they are getting shelled.

2018-19 Goalie Quality and Really Bad Starts for NJ
via Hockey Reference/Rob Vollman

The separation between Blackwood and his two counterparts by this metric is quite stark. Kinkaid shows particularly poorly here, as his quality starts ended up under 40% and his really bad starts were nearly 30%. Schneider also had a troublesome quality start percentage in the mid 40s, though he and Kinkaid took very different routes to their final numbers. Blackwood, meanwhile, was tied for the second-best quality start percentage in the league among goalies with 10 or more starts.

Kinkaid had his well-documented great start, which included four wins to open the season with two of those being shutouts. Kinkaid’s play dipped in late October, but he was still plenty serviceable through November, posting a .910 in 11 appearances in the month. As December arrived, though the wheels would fall off for Kinkaid and never really return though. From December until he was dealt February for a late-round pick three years from now, Kinkaid posted a brutal .872 sv% with just 6 quality starts in 21 appearances. It was a major disappointment for a goalie that some had surmised might have figured it out over the previous year or so. Kinkaid has not made an appearance for Columbus since his arrival there.

Schneider, to some extent, had the opposite season that Kinkaid did. His return to the ice following off-season surgery didn’t occur until late October. Upon that return, he proceeded to get shelled in almost every one of his starts until he returned to injured reserve with an apparent abdominal injury in December. Over his first nine appearances, he failed to collect a win and yielded just one quality start, returning to IR with a dismal .852 sv%. Most were quite fairly asking if this might be it for Schneider. Schneider fell off the radar again as he rehabbed, opening the door for Mackenzie Blackwood to completely change the goaltending dynamic at the NHL level. Blackwood had about a month of heroics under his belt when Schneider finally returned after the All-Star break. This was seemingly a different (and perhaps finally healthy) Cory Schneider, though. After his almost unfathomably bad open to the season, Schneider returned and played great, putting up a .921 sv% with 9 of 16 starts registering as quality starts, plus his shutout relief effort in Minnesota that finally snapped his endlessly dissected regular season losing streak that stretched all the way through the 2018 calendar year.

The real breakthrough story of the year in net, though, was Mackenzie Blackwood. Blackwood got the call in mid-December after Schneider’s return to IR and made his first appearance in relief or Keith Kinkaid, who was being shelled at the hands of a high-powered Leafs team. After that relief appearance, in which he gave up two goals in the third period of a Leafs runaway, Blackwood would then go on to save 147 of his next 151 shots against in his next five appearances (.974 sv%). His back to back shutouts on December 29th and 31st would elevate the hype machine to a fever pitch. His play would sag a bit as he would get a little banged up in January, but he would rebound from February on, looking largely dominant in his NHL time (which was intermittent until Kinkaid’s departure). Outside of a nine-goal-against obliteration he endured at the hands of the Flames in mid-March, Blackwood was mostly spectacular, providing nine quality starts out of 11 starts total from February to the end of the season.

Where We are Now

So resetting the table heading into 2019-20, it appears that, despite a rough season of goaltending in the aggregate, the Devils are largely set up in net for next season. After the departure of Keith Kinkaid and the strong finishes from both Schneider and Blackwood, the team will almost certainly head into 2019-20 with a tandem of #29 and #35. There are some lingering concerns to think about over the summer, though.

Both goaltenders the team will be moving forward with have some uncertainty surrounding them. For obvious reasons (chief among them being much of the past three years), heading into a season with Cory Schneider as 50% of your tandem carries some baggage. Schneider looked like his old self over the final two months of 2018-19, but is that enough to feel confident that he is back to being a reliable starter? It wasn’t too long ago we were also wondering if an extremely painful buyout was coming this summer due to Schneider’s play. He did appear to be the sharp, positionally-sound Schneider of old down the stretch, but given his age and last few years, durability will certainly be a concern for next years squad.

As for the other half of the presumptive tandem, Mackenzie Blackwood, he has at least a couple question marks of his own, and they pretty much come down to the sample size. Blackwood was largely spectacular in New Jersey this season, but it does still only amount to 23 appearances. His lackluster first two pro seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18 loom as something of a “yeah, but” for the young goalie. Given just how good he looked in front of an NHL defense (please hold your jokes for now) though, I think he is almost a lock to be a part of a 1A/1B arrangement at least in Newark at the start of 2019-20.

The one question the team will have to answer over the summer is if they will consider any kind of insurance policy to account for the above-mentioned question marks in net. Schneider and Blackwood seem highly likely to be the tandem in net, but should the team look for a veteran journeyman to stash in Binghamton in case things go south for one netminder or the other? That is something for the team to mull in free agency, for sure. Overall, though, given how bad things looked circa mid-December, the team has to be pleased that they have what looks like a pretty viable pair of goalies to carry the mantle into next season.