As anyone who follows the Devils with any regularity now knows, the Devils bought out goaltender Cory Schneider last week. Schneider spent seven years with the organization after being acquired at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. He spent roughly half of those seven years being one of the very best goalies in hockey and much of the other half being either injured or a complete albatross between the pipes. Through it all, though, Schneider was one of the easiest guys in the league to root for, which made the way his tenure in New Jersey ultimately played out all the more unfortunate.
The Pre-Devils Years
Cory Schneider has been plagued by poor timing and unfortunate career luck pretty much since the moment he broke into the NHL. Even before he arrived in New Jersey just in time for the team to collapse into its first rebuild since the 1980’s, he was honing his ability to arrive in places at the wrong time. After getting drafted by Vancouver to be their goalie of the future late in the first round of the 2004 entry draft, Schneider went Boston College where he was the starting goaltender for three seasons.
Just one season after Schneider was drafted, (not including the 2004-05 season lost to lockout) the Canucks would drastically change their outlook at the goalie position, though, making a blockbuster deal with the Florida Panthers to bring in one of the league’s best netminders, Roberto Luongo (brief aside: The Panthers, uh, didn’t do so well in this trade, which featured Todd Bertuzzi as the centerpiece going the other way. Bertuzzi only played seven games for the Panthers before being flipped to Detroit for servicable bottom-sixer Shawn Matthias and a second round pick). Luongo instantly remade the goalie situation in Vancouver, displacing a tandem of Dan Cloutier and Alex Auld. Schneider was still at Boston College though, so it seemed he still had the opportunity to be the heir apparent.
Schneider signed with Vancouver after his junior season and finally broke into the NHL in 2010-11 after a few years in AHL Manitoba. He had had a few NHL cups of coffee in the leadup to 2010, but in 2010-11 he stuck, posting the third best sv% in the league among goalies with 20+ starts. There was one problem for Schneider, though. If he was ever going to be the unquestioned starter in the NHL, he was stuck behind Roberto Luongo, who had just started one of the more infamous “long-tail” cap-circumventing contracts that season (and also happened to be #4 on that sv% list right behind Schneider — the two would share the Jennings Trophy that season). Yes, Luongo was in the first year of a 12-year deal when Schneider broke into the league. If Schneider was going to be The Guy at some point, something had to give.
After a truly bizarre Cup Final where Luongo managed to win two 1-0 shutouts and also ended up one of the goats of the series by giving up 18 goals in his 4 losses, things started to get weird. Schnieder followed up his terrific rookie season by being even better in year two, putting up a .937 sv% good for second in the league while Luongo put up a still-solid but much-less-impressive .919. The league then instituted a retroactive punishment for all of those long-tail contracts in the CBA agreed to in 2013 with the so-called “cap recapture penalty” (Devils fans will be familiar thanks to the Ilya Kovalchuk fiasco(s)). Luongo immediately became a liability and with an excellent (and younger and cheaper) Schneider behind him signed to a new three-year deal, the clamoring for the Canucks to figure out their situation in net grew to a near-unbearable din in Vancouver. Luongo and Schneider were good sports about the whole thing (see below), but it was surely a drag on both with the incessant “who is the #1” talk.
Most expected Luongo to be the one departing Vancouver with his massive contract, but then-GM Mike Gillis couldn’t move his contract for the price he was hoping and ended up trading Schneider instead in one of the more dramatic and surprising draft-day announcements in history. Schneider — despite being one of the best goalies in the league, younger, and on a better contract — went to New Jersey for the 9th overall pick (which would be used to select Vancouver’s now-captain in Bo Horvat). He ended up traded, but at least his days of “who’s #1” drama were over, right? Well...
The Heir-Apparent Redux
Schneider went from one complicated situation in Vancouver to a perhaps equally thorny setup in New Jersey, where he was brought in follow in the footsteps of the aging legend (and was dubbed a “fantastic 1A” by coach Pete DeBoer), Martin Brodeur. Brodeur had been in decline for a few years and, aside from a great run in the 2012 playoffs, had become a mediocre NHL goalie by 2013. And yet, it turns out it’s not so easy to back-burner a legend who has three cups, the most wins and shutouts in league history, and tended to start 70 games a season in his heyday.
Schneider arrived and picked up right where he left off in Vancouver, putting up terrific numbers in New Jersey for a Devils team still clinging to relevance after the dramatic exits of their two biggest star forwards in consecutive offseasons. Brodeur, meanwhile, continued his late career decline, putting up replacement-level numbers while still getting about half of the starts. Schneider was forced to split time equally with a goalie he was clearly superior to at the respective moments in their careers, contributing to the downfall of a Devils team that was much better than their standings position indicated. Schneider came in and did what was expected of him, but other factors conspired to keep the last decent pre-rebuild Devils team out of the playoffs. He walked out of one dramatic and emotionally charged goaltending situation and right into another, with the added pain of missing the playoffs by 5 points with an 0-13 team shootout record.
The Goalie on an Island
The Devils would part ways with the soon-to-be 42-year-old Brodeur in the 2014 offseason, meaning — finally — Cory Schneider had the net to himself. If the Devils could scrape together a similar performance to 2013-14 with Schneider getting the bulk of the starts, they figured to still have a good shot at making the playoffs. It... didn’t go that way. Schneider held up his end of the bargain, putting up the sixth-best sv% (20+ starts) and third-best GSAA of any goaltender in the league. The team in front of him imploded, though.
Years of band-aids and duct tape that held the team together all started to become unglued. Patrik Elias finally began to show his age, Jaromir Jagr failed to replicate his special 2013-14 season, and a roster filled with role players saddled with too much responsibility cratered. Adam Henrique led all scorers with 43 points and the Devils finished near the bottom of the league in spite of having one of the most valuable goalies in the league. They weren’t bad enough to figure into the Connor McDavid sweepstakes but the writing was on the wall. That iteration of the Devils was done, and a complete overhaul of the NHL roster and the development pipeline was needed to make the team competitive again.
In spite of this reality staring the Devils in the face, Schneider had a 7-year extension about to take effect in the following season. He was a win-now goalie behind a win-someday organizational depth chart. Some among the Devils fanbase opined that the Devils should trade Schneider given their situation, an opinion that I did not agree with at the time but, with the benefit of hindsight, probably would have worked out best for everyone involved in the end. Schneider remained in New Jersey though, and surely hoped to ultimately be part of the solution for the Devils, even if it was a few years away.
In 2015-16 the Devils had begun to clear out the rot left behind by the final years of Lou Lamoriello’s tenure, and it was probably the first year since perhaps the 1980’s that the Devils did not have playoff expectations. Schneider was great again, as he finished fourth in the league in GSAA, helping a surprisingly spunky Devils team led by Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Henrique stay relevant through the New Year and even into mid-February. Cammalleri got injured in the middle of perhaps the best year of his career, though and the Devils tailed off in the stretch run, finishing 9 points out of the playoffs. We didn’t know it at the time, but that season would be Schneider’s last as a great goalie in New Jersey. There would be pockets and flashes of the old Cory, but he wouldn’t crack .910 over a full season again, despite being over .920 for the previous six years.
When the Devils pulled off the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson heist in the 2016 offseason, hope for an accelerated rebuild in New Jersey abounded. With a great goalie in Schneider, some quality pieces like Palmieri, Henrique, an up-and-coming Damon Severson, and soon-to-arrive high-draftee Pavel Zacha, adding an elite talent like Hall figured to put the Devils in the mix. It wasn’t to be, though, as the group was at-times competitive but ultimately cratered down the stretch. Schneider had the worst year of his career by far, with his save percentage, quality start percentage, and GSAA all by far his worst since breaking into the league full time. As the Devils were prepping to maybe be competitive, Schneider began showing cracks. On this site, CJ (at-first infamously, but then famously) correctly pointed out that offseason that Schneider was bound to become a liability before long. Right he was, though not quite immediately.
After playing his part in the Devils nosediving their way into picking Nico Hischier in 2017, Schneider bounced back in a big way in the first half of 2017-18. Schneider was spectacular in the opening three months of the season, playing a major part in staking the Devils to a big cushion in the playoff race and, as late as December 29th, a first place spot in the Metropolitan Division. At this point Schneider hit a slump and shortly after, ended up on the injured list. In his stead, backup Keith Kinkaid played admirably, rebounding from a dreadful first half to suddenly become lights out as he buoyed the Devils through the second half of the season. When Schneider returned from injury, he was terrible, and with the Devils in the thick of a heated playoff race, a new Schneider goalie controversy was born.
Kinkaid helped get the Devils to the playoffs as MVP Taylor Hall powered the skaters. Schneider tried to get right behind him but was relegated to the backup position to start the playoffs. After Kinkaid spun out in games one and two, though, Schneider got a new shot and he played well against a superior Tampa team, taking Game 3 off of them in the Devils only playoff victory since 2012. Despite putting up a .950 sv% in four appearances, a back-on-his game Schneider could not pull the overmatched Devils any further than five games.
Schneider got surgery for a nagging hip injury in the summer of 2018, so hope sprang anew that a revitalized Schneider could find his old form when he recovered and help push a scrappy Taylor Hall-led roster into contention again in 2018-19. That... did not happen. Whether he came back too soon or he just wasn’t mentally right, Schneider was absolutely brutal when he returned in the fall of 2018. He stretched his regular season losing streak six more starts (infamously ending 0-for-2018 in the regular season) before returning to the injured list. His tandem mate, Kinkaid, looked strong at the start but then rapidly declined as the fall turned into winter with him and Schneider turning in alternating stinkers for a time, and the 2018-19 Devils were DOA by Christmas. Schneider would return to a long-effectively-eliminated Devils team in February and look like his old self again down the stretch. The Devils were bad enough to secure a relatively high lottery spot, and the odds went their way again to get Jack Hughes with the top pick.
Coming into 2019-20, Devils fans had become wary of Schneider’s troubles to stay healthy and effective, but with a big offseason, hope sprang anew one last time that Schneider could put it back together and return to being an effective goalie. About 39 minutes into the opening game against Winnipeg, that looked like a distinct possibility with Schneider pitching an opening night 4-0 shutout. By the end of the night Schneider was injured and the Devils had lost. Neither Schneider nor the Devils ever recovered from that opening night disaster. Another late season return saw Schneider once again show life, but ultimately the team could not ride the roller coaster with him any longer, opting for last weeks buyout to close Cory’s time with the team.
Schneider’s New Jersey Legacy
Schneider’s legacy in New Jersey is hard to pin down. He’s almost certainly the second-best goalie in the franchise’s history (for now), but he also gave us some of the most putrid stretches of goaltending in recent memory. He actually leaves with the franchise’s best career sv% (.915 — though era-adjusted, Brodeur probably has the edge), and is third in wins (115 — just 3 behind Terreri) and second in shutouts (17 — just 107 behind Brodeur). As a teammate and a person, few players around the league have a much better reputation than Schneider. He’s a guy that it is exceedingly easy to root for, never dumping on his teammates when he was the only one playing well and never pinning the blame on anyone but himself when he was bad. Those qualities shone through in his recent Q&A with Corey Masisak of the Athletic ($), where he was candid and fully accepting of responsibility for his lack of quality for the past few years. This quote from Damon Severson in that article stood out to me:
“I would say, the first thing that comes to my mind, and it’s probably one of the biggest compliments you can give, is he was just one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with and just the consummate pro,” Devils defenseman Damon Severson said. “He was always a positive guy. He was never down. As bad as things were for a little bit of a stretch there in the past few years here, with the injuries and with everyone being all over him about not playing well … it wasn’t really on him. There were a lot of times we hung him out to dry and he would take the blame for it. He would never look to place the blame elsewhere. He would always be like, ‘I can play better, I can play better.’”
The above is why it’s sad to see the Schneider era end the way it did. Schneider laments not making it to the other side of the rebuild in that interview but — as anyone with eyes and/or access to Hockey-Reference.com should be able to — he understands why it had to end the way that it did. Before last week’s buyout, Schneider was the second-longest tenured Devil behind Travis Zajac, but unfortunately for him (and later partially because of him), he spent most of that time with the team in the NHL wilderness.
So his legacy? It seems to be a good goalie who had really bad career timing. That timing prevented him from carving out a more memorable NHL career, as he spent his best years, which really were truly great, either splitting time with hall-of-famers or backstopping a bad Devils team. Personally, I will always think fondly of Cory Schneider as a Devil, even if I am rueful of how things ultimately played out. He arrived as a blockbuster acquisition for a team trying to keep its window of competitiveness open, only to see that window slam shut a little over a season later. And once the team appeared to be on the rise again (or at least starting down that path), his body and/or instincts in net began to fail him. I won’t exactly call it a tragedy, because the man will ultimately make something like $45M from this seven-year stretch, but on some level you have to feel for him as a player.
With reports having him heading to Long Island to join the man who traded for him in the first place, Lou Lamoriello, I think I speak for a lot of Devils fans when I wish him the best in that next chapter (aside from if/when he’s playing the Devils). So cheers, Cory, and sorry it never worked out the way we all hoped.