Last season, the Devils were scraping the bottom of the NHL barrel. The reasons they were doing so are perhaps varied, but the primary reason they nose-dived toward the bottom of the standings in the first place was pretty clear: their goaltenders were playing terribly. Goaltending is a great equalizer in the NHL. A strong goalie can allow a mediocre squad to cause problems for any opponent, including the league’s best. It also cuts both ways, though. An otherwise average team can easily sink to the bottom of the standings if they are backstopped by a sieve.
For the Devils, the latter of those two scenarios came true last season. The Devils were coming off a run to the playoffs, powered by Taylor Hall’s MVP campaign, and looked like a team to be reckoned with to start 2018-19. The goaltending tailed off though, first significantly, then catastrophically, and it spiraled the Devils mostly down the drain by mid-December. By the time the Devils did finally stabilize things in net, the team was buried in the standings and having their shortage of depth exposed by a wave of injuries.
In the offseason, Ray Shero (with some assistance from Lady Luck), got busy on trying to rectify that depth issue. The results by the end of the summer were clear: at least on paper, Shero did about as much as you can possibly expect a GM to do to improve this roster. Early returns in the preseason have helped to build on that hype even more. There are plenty of other posts detailing those moves, including this breakdown of how much those moves have improved the Devils by CJ earlier this offseason, but while the improvement to the group of skaters is well documented, the “yes, but” involved with every Devils prediction is centered around the goaltending. If the Devils can get average or better goaltending, they are well-positioned to potentially return to the playoffs. If they get a 2018-19 redux in goal? Well, all bets are off.
The Devils entered the season with a nominal tandem of Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider, though Schneider was still in the process of recovering from offseason hip surgery. Generally speaking, there was reason for some positivity. Kinkaid was coming off the best stretch of goaltending in his career to close the 2017-18 regular season, when he had a big hand in the Devils outrunning their peers to secure the final playoff spot in the East. Meanwhile, Schneider was coming off of surgery, but it was surgery to fix an issue that had been bothering him for multiple seasons. With a repaired hip, there was hope that Schneider would be able to return to something approaching his previously excellent form from earlier in his career.
As we now know, it very much did not work out that way. Kinkaid looked excellent for the first couple weeks of the season and then his play deteriorated until he was in a full nose dive by December. Schneider, for his part, returned from his surgery and promptly got shelled in all but a handful of his outings, extending a streak of regular season futility that stretched through the entire calendar year of 2018. By the time that rookie MacKenzie Blackwood came up and put on a show starting in late December, the season was already pretty much lost and the mountain of injuries that would hamstring the team in the second half had already started to pile up.
Goaltending is perhaps not the only reason the Devils struggled so badly those first few months, but it was almost certainly the largest. Until mid-December, the Devils were actually fairly consistently a positive expected goals (xG) team through the season’s opening months, meaning the volume and type of chances they were getting would generally point to a solid team, assuming goaltending is equal. The Devils goaltenders in the portion of the season before Christmas put up a save percentage of .889, though, badly undercutting a team that was otherwise generally performing around “playoff bubble” levels. By the time Blackwood was doing his thing and Schneider made his second return from injury to play well, the team was already buried too deep and too depleted by injuries (and later trades) to make it count for anything.
Heading into the 2019-20 season, the Devils again have reason to be hopeful about the goaltending situation, with the necessary caveat that some of the same concerns from last season remain, even if in a slightly different package. The Devils will have MacKenzie Blackwood in his sophomore season, coming off of a very successful rookie campaign, as one half of their tandem heading into the season. Blackwood posted a strong .918 save percentage through 23 appearances and had the second best quality start percentage in the NHL among players with more than 10 appearances. The Devils couldn’t have asked for a better start to his NHL career, especially considering the ups and downs of his development path.
The other half of the expected goalie battery will again be Cory Schneider. It’s been a rough couple of years for the veteran goaltender, marred by injuries and at-times abysmal play when he has been on the ice. So what reasons are there for optimism? Well, Schneider is now over a year removed from his hip surgery and with a full offseason of rest and conditioning should theoretically have him in his best health in several years. Additionally, despite a dreadful stretch in his initial return from surgery, Schneider finished the year quite strongly after another roughly-two-month visit to injured reserve. After that return, he put up a .921 save percentage over his final 17 appearances. If he can get back to something approaching his pre-2017 form, that would be a massive dose of good news for the Devils.
Now, the performance of Blackwood and/or Schneider at the levels they were at to close last season is far from guaranteed. Blackwood is young and has just over 1000 career minutes under his belt, far from enough to predict his level of play with substantial confidence. Plus, as I alluded to above, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Blackwood in the leadup to last season’s success. His 2017-18 season was really rough and featured a demotion to the ECHL at one point. His numbers otherwise, outside of his final season in junior, aren’t much to write home about either. It’s not always easy to judge goalies at lower levels and Blackwood’s numbers don’t necessarily have huge red flags outside of 2017-18, but it’s still enough to give pause to any predictions of long-term success.
As for Schneider, well, the erstwhile undisputed starter isn’t going to inspire a lot of guaranties, given recent history. He had a solid end to last season and this theoretically as healthy as he’s been in a while, but his age and the past few years of play offer more than enough in the form of doubts about his expectations. Now, Schneider seems well-positioned for a bit of a career renaissance, but one tweak of that hip and we could be back at square one. People (rightfully) are going to want to see an extended run of success this season before placing too much confidence in the now-33-year-old netminder.
In spite of those caveats, a strong season in net does seem firmly within the realm of possibility. And while Keith Kinkaid faltered badly last season after a strong run in 2018, he was never as highly regarded a prospect as Blackwood nor did he have the substantial history of elite-level play like Schneider’s pre-2017. The Devils do have uncertainty when projecting the goaltending this year, but they appear better-positioned than they were before last season’s disastrous run and if both goaltenders can stay healthy, they hopefully have enough redundancy to push this team at least back to average in net. If they can do that, then with the plethora of new (and returning) weapons in their lineup, they could be a dangerous team to deal with.