Currently, the New Jersey Devils have a starting goaltender in Mackenzie Blackwood. If things go well for both him and the organization, he will be the starter here for many years to come. Behind him, however, things are quite murky at the moment. The listed backup is Cory Schneider, and that makes sense, given the fact that he is due $6 million a year for the next two seasons and he isn’t being traded.
Behind him, there are some goalies in the system. Gilles Senn and Zane McIntyre are the current listed goalies for Binghamton in the AHL. Otherwise, you have Evan Cormier, Cole Brady, and Akira Schmid.
When discussing the backup goaltending position, at the moment of course the answer is Schneider. However, the discussion at large really hinges on what the Devils want to do next season. If they see 2020-21 as a rebuilding year still, to grow the talent they draft this year in the first round as well as allowing players like Jack Hughes, Blackwood, and Ty Smith to develop further, then realistically they have no need to acquire a backup goaltender. Let Schneider backup Blackwood. He is a veteran who could help Blackwood improve by imparting knowledge and acting like a mentor, and he could get in some games himself, giving the Devils some use on his $6 million salary. It is the most cost effective strategy in that scenario, and makes the most sense.
If management and the coaching staff see a chance to compete for a playoff spot next season, however, then this becomes a suboptimal strategy. Schneider is well past his prime, and his save percentage has dropped every year since the 2014-15 season. He had an .887 save percentage last year, and considering his save percentage keeps going down, that does not give anyone high expectations or hopes that he could be even a winning backup goalie in this league anymore. And beyond that, his GSAA was -5.19 at 5v5 action this season, good for 70th out of 82 eligible goalies. So if the Devils really want to compete for a playoff spot, you cannot give Schneider 20-25 starts next season.
Furthermore, you really cannot give those starts to anyone else in the system either. There might be some hype or potential in those guys I listed above, but unless the organization knows something I don’t, it’s most likely true that none of them are truly ready for a competitive backup position in the NHL, especially on a team competing for a playoff spot. Those guys need to develop, and they need to do it in the system, not in Newark.
So, if management does think that this team can compete as early as next year, then it behooves them to sign a backup goalie, one that can give the team a legitimate chance to win in his 20-25 starts, while also helping Blackwood to continue his growth into a star goaltender. Unless Schneider seriously improves, he can only do the latter, and that would be unacceptable to a team looking to win.
Therefore, let’s assume that management likes the team it develops for the 2020-21 season and thinks that it can push for a playoff position. It is not entirely unreasonable to think that. With further improvement from Blackwood himself into one of the better #1 goalies in the league, with the further development of the team’s offense, including Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt, and the emergence of Ty Smith to bolster the blue line, there is serious room for growth in this lineup. Many might not predict the Devils to be playoff bound next season, but it is far from impossible.
To that end, and in this scenario, the Devils need a quality backup who can win them games next season. This would need to be addressed in free agency, as a veteran signing would be the best option. As I mentioned above, the ideal candidate would be someone who can also mentor Blackwood and take his game to an even higher level, almost like a player-coach. But he also needs to be good enough in his backup role to win games.
So, who will be a free agent after this playoff extravaganza that starts today? Cap Friendly has a list here of all goalies whose contracts expire at the end of this current season and who would become an unrestricted free agent if not re-signed by the start of free agency. Now some of them will not make free agency, of course, but still, right now there are 37 goalies who are currently rostered that meet those requirements. Not all of them are NHL-level, given the fact that NJ’s own Zane McIntyre makes this list, but nonetheless there are some intriguing names out there. Let’s look at three names that I think could be worth targeting in a backup role next year for the Devils.
In my opinion, the top name for GM Tom Fitzgerald to target would be Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin. The man was a beast this season behind Ben Bishop. His +18.62 GSAA at 5v5 play ranked 2nd in the NHL, behind only Tuukka Rask. Furthermore, his overall save percentage of .930 ranked #1 among all goalies with at least 15 starts. He is 34 years old, and would make a great veteran presence behind Blackwood while also providing his share of quality starts in net. He made $2.5 million a year in Dallas the last two seasons, and while his play on the ice might warrant him a raise, you would think he could still be had for a reasonable price (remember, NJ is paying Schneider $6 million a year. It isn’t hard to pay a new backup much, much less than that). Now, The Dallas Morning News reported a couple of weeks ago that he wants to stay in Texas, but as the paper also noted, their goalie of the future in Jake Oettinger is waiting in the wings, and there might not be room for both Khudobin and Bishop there any longer. If he becomes available, I think Fitzgerald has to try for him.
If Khudobin doesn’t hit the open market, or the Devils get outbid for his services, another name that could become available is Cam Talbot. Yes, I know he has played for both of the Devils’ rivals, but he could be a quality option behind Blackwood. He is 32 and coming off a quality season backing up David Rittich. In fact, it would be easy to claim that he had a much better season than the starter in Calgary, with Rittich posting a -3.75 GSAA at 5v5, and Talbot posting a +3.84. That is a massive difference. In fact, it scares me into thinking that Calgary will look to re-sign him, or that it could potentially give him a chance to fight it out for a starting position somewhere in training camp, something he could not do in New Jersey. And it will undoubtedly jack up his price tag, especially since he is 32, not 37. However, our friends at Matchsticks and Gasoline don’t see him returning to Calgary, and if the Devils truly want competent backup play, why not pay Talbot something similar to what Thomas Greiss got this season out on Long Island ($3.5 mil range)? While I ultimately don’t see this signing happening, it is worth considering.
And finally, since I just mentioned him, Thomas Greiss would be a great signing. The Isles have Semyon Varlamov signed for $5 million a year through 2023, and a promising young goalie in Ilya Sorokin who will be making $2 million next season. The odds of them keeping Greiss around is slim, barring him starting for the team during this playoff march and absolutely dominating. And even then, it would take trading or buying out Varlamov, neither option particularly good for New York. Greiss is 34 like Khudobin, and had a GSAA at 5v5 at +2.54 this season, not bad at all. Like the other two goalies mentioned here, he would not necessarily be cheap, but again, I am taking this from the perspective that the Devils think they can compete next season, as otherwise there is no point at all to even look for a backup. And if they want to compete, they will need to spend some $$ on a competent backup. And also again, it would still be way, way less than what Schneider makes now. So all things considered, I like Greiss, and he could want to sign in New Jersey as it would allow him to remain close to where he is now, and he wouldn’t need to move halfway across the country.
So there you have it. There are other names out there that will hit free agency, like Brian Elliott, Aaron Dell, and even our old friend Keith Kinkaid. However, in terms of the backup goaltender market, I think the three I mentioned above are the best options for Fitzgerald to look at should he determine that he wants to compete in 2020-21. I would want Khudobin personally, as he had a quality two seasons in Dallas and would be an excellent mentor to Blackwood. Greiss would do that too, and he has played above average hockey recently as well, so I would also like that signing a lot. I also mentioned Talbot, and he is worth considering for sure, although I do not really see that happening personally given his age and probable price tag. Anyone else would be a step down, and would be signed because they would cost less. But at that point, you start to wonder then, why not just keep Schneider as the backup? If you are going to truly compete in 2020-21, you need a good backup to not only eat up 20-25 starts, but to get more wins than losses in those games. Does Brian Elliott really get a boat load more wins than Schneider next year? Dell? Jimmy Howard? Either go all in and try to win and get a serious backup, or let Schneider do his thing.