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New Jersey Devils 2021 Season Preview Part 3: The Goaltenders

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Today, in our week-long season preview here at All About the Jersey, I tackle the goaltending position, which looks to be in the best shape it has been in years, although with the very recent news about Crawford, that might not be entirely true anymore.

Pittsburgh Penguins v New Jersey Devils

Welcome to day 3 of All About the Jersey’s season preview for the wild and wacky 2021 season! Over the last two days, CJ and Mike have discussed the two major position groups on the New Jersey Devils, covering all of the skaters between them. Today, I will dive into the final and smallest position group: the goaltenders.

Since the departure of Martin Brodeur, the group of goalies that the team has carried has not been terrible, and it has been largely consistent throughout. It just hasn’t been Brodeur good obviously. The main duo from 2014 through 2018 was Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, although other names did pop up for short intervals. They mainly did a decent enough job throughout those seasons, Schneider getting an all-star bid and Kinkaid playing hot down the stretch to lead the Devils into the playoffs. However, by 2018 with the decline of Schneider’s game and the realization that Kinkaid was a quality #2 but would never really become a definitive #1, Mackenzie Blackwood would enter the picture after a second round draft pick was used on him in 2015. He finally joined the big club in the 2018-19 season, playing in 23 games with 21 starts and showcasing that he could be the guy. That would lead to more changes heading into last season, with the goal being the progression and growth of Blackwood into a true #1 that could lead this team in the crease for a decade plus.

What Happened Last Season

Heading into the 2019-20 season, there was little doubt that Blackwood would be the guy. However, the question heading into the season was who would play behind him. Schneider was still on the roster and was being paid handsomely, to the tune of $6 million a year. However, his play was clearly declining, and he was not the goalie that had signed that massive 7 year, 42 million extension, having not had a save percentage average over .910 since the 2015-16 season. Schneider would end up playing in 13 games with a measly .887 save percentage and would have a small role as a backup, but it was not what John Hynes, Alain Nasreddine, or Ray Shero/Tom Fitzgerald wanted, and there were attempts to find someone else as well.

This ended up occurring early on in the season when the team traded for Louis Domingue. He would gain some playing time, 16 games and 14 starts, but was arguably worse than Schneider, posting a weak .882 save percentage in that time frame with a goals against average north of 4. That obviously was not going to cut it for any NHL team, and he was promptly demoted and eventually traded at the deadline. The only other goalie last season to gain a start, besides Blackwood, Schneider, and Domingue was Gilles Senn, who is still in the Devils system currently. Senn would playin in 2 games for New Jersey last season, posting a .902 save percentage, which while mediocre at best, was still wildly better than what Domingue or Schneider provided in a backup role.

That just leaves Blackwood. Remember, the goal last year was to see him break out and become a true #1, especially in a season where many of us expected the team to finish close to a wild card position. Blackwood started out the year slow, as between him and Schneider, the Devils had the lowest save percentage in the league in October. He turned it around, however, and ended the year with a .915 save percentage across 47 appearances and 43 starts, including 3 shutouts. That .915 save percentage was good for 20th among all goalies with at least 1,000 minutes in the crease. Those do not look like exceptional numbers on the surface, .915 is not top of the league type, but it would definitely seem passable, and even without diving deeper, in the NHL those numbers would give a strong team in front of him chances to win and be competitive.

When you do break it down further and dive deeper, you’ll find that at 5 on 5, Blackwood was actually a lot better, posting a .926 save percentage, which put him 15th among goalies with at least a thousand 5v5 minutes. With over 2,000 minutes at 5 on 5, it means that the majority of the time out there, Blackwood was actually pretty dominant. A .926 across all situations is exceptional, and while Blackwood did not do that, he managed it at 5 on 5, which is what happens most often. If you want your goalie to succeed at any strength, you want it to be 5 on 5, and here was where Blackwood shined.

That positive has to be balanced with a negative somewhere to get the .915 total, and the answer is on special teams. Blackwood was poor on both the power play and penalty kill, neither coming close to his 5v5 numbers. In the latter, on the kill, his .864 save percentage ranking him 34th among all goalies last year who had at least 100 PK minutes. Also, he amazingly enough only had a .857 save percentage when on the power play, allowing 6 shorthanded goals on 42 shots against, which is obviously atrocious. So when broken down in this fashion, we can see that last year, Blackwood was actually one of the better goaltenders in the league at 5 on 5 play, where he accumulated over 2 thousand minutes, but struggled mightily on special teams, both when advantaged and disadvantaged.

Because of this knowledge, when you look at some underlying numbers, they look really strong for Blackwood, suggesting that he had a better season than his .915 save percentage and 22-14-8 record would indicate. This is because of his great 5 on 5 performance and the knowledge that most of his minutes were at 5 on 5, which skews the analytics in his favor. I’m not saying to take the following data with a grain of salt, but just with the knowledge that it skews positive for Blackwood because it emphasizes his 5 on 5 play, given how much time he spent playing at that strength as opposed to on special teams. First off, check out this chart from Sean Tierney comparing goals saved versus expectation.

As you can see, only a few goalies from last year were positive in this regard, with more saved goals than they were expected to save, and Blackwood was one of the few. This means that he outperformed expectations, or outperformed what the numbers said he should have done. This put him in a very exclusive category with the Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebyuck and two other strong goalies last year in Tuukka Rask and Carter Hart. The next chart, also from Sean over at Charting Hockey, looks at similar data in a different graph set.

Here, you have Blackwood clearly in the “hard work, good results” category. Thanks to a porous defense in front of him, Blackwood played tough minutes last season when on the ice, being peppered with shots and also with high danger shots as well. The y-axis there shows the same data that was on the first chart. You see Blackwood along with those few goalies who were positive in GSAX. Then, it is overlaid with expected goals against per 60 on the x-axis, which is where you see Blackwood being peppered, thanks to his number being over 2.8. But again, despite that, he was great at 5 on 5, and the chart showcases that.

And here, you will notice that Blackwood was also great at preventing rebounds. His symbol is the large NJ one clearly in the top left quadrant, showcasing that he offered few rebounds to the opposition. The tiny Devils symbol in the bottom center was Schneider, who was not good at letting up rebounds. Blackwood, however, was not expected to give up many rebounds, and also did not, coming close to matching his xRebs/shot. That is key when it comes to allowing up easy rebound goals. Those can be so frustrating to watch, especially on easy, long distance shots. The fact that Blackwood was a vacuum in that regard is huge and speaks well to how he played last season.

Finally, before moving onto this year’s squad, here is a quick chart of some of Blackwood’s analytics from last season and their ranks, both 5v5 and on the PK (removing the PP as it was only 42 shots against). These numbers come from Natural Stat Trick. Again, rank at 5v5 is for goalies with at least a thousand minutes at that strength, and the PK rank is for goalies with at least 100 PK minutes.

The GSAA/60 and HDGSAA/60 really showcase the 5 on 5 versus PK divide. Blackwood was dynamite at high danger saves at even strength, and at saving more goals above average. But when it came to the PK, he could not stop anything in up close, with a high danger GSAA among the worst in the league. That helps to lower the average goal distance you see on the penalty kill.

This Year’s Squad

Note: I wrote this up before the announcement that Crawford is taking a leave of absence for personal reasons. I want to keep what I wrote intact, however, in case he comes back soon and plays most of the season. I will touch on other options at the end of this section.

This year, the #1 position is still largely unchanged, with Blackwood returning and hopefully continuing to improve. At only 24 year of age, he has definitive growth potential, and with a large slate of games, he should have plenty of opportunities to improve his game.

The difference this year is who is playing behind him. And with the signing, it might allow Blackwood to see more rest, given that the backup should provide competent play. Towards the end of Free Agent Frenzy, Tom Fitzgerald attempted to end the era of backup incompetence that has plagued the team recently. To solve this, he inked Corey Crawford, who has won multiple cups in Chicago, the last coming in 2015. Crawford received a two year, $7.8 million deal, making him one of the better paid backups in the league. To compare, Anthon Khudobin signed a 3 year deal to remain in Dallas, netting him $10 million.

Despite playing on a bad Blackhawks team last year, Crawford was a plus goaltender when out on the ice. His .917 save percentage in all situations ranked him 15th among all goalies with at least a thousand minutes played. Furthermore, his GSAA/60 at all strengths was 0.23, good for 16th among the same goaltenders, and better than Blackwood’s 0.16. Also, if you look back up at Sean’s charts, you will see further confirmation of his positive play. His GSAX was just behind Blackwood’s, and on the middle chart, he is also clearly in the “hard work, good results” quadrant. He struggled in allowing rebounds, but overall, put up a strong performance for an otherwise poor Chicago team.

From this, it is clear that Fitzgerald made a strong signing in bringing in Crawford. At 36 years old, he does not have many good years left, so signing him to a two year deal was the right move. It gives him time to acclimate here, and also plenty of time to help tutor Blackwood and help him become a better goalie in the NHL. That could be the best part of the signing. He will provide great backup play, but will also work with Blackwood to make him an even stronger starter, which will be vital for the Devils down the line.

How Lindy Ruff designates starts this season will be interesting to see. Will Blackwood be the pure #1, gaining around 70-75% of the starts, or around 40+ starts this season? Or given that Crawford should hopefully play well when given starts, will that number fall to about 60%? If that were the case, you would see Blackwood with around 35 starts, and Crawford with 21. This could help to keep Blackwood well-rested, but still provide the Devils with competent goaltending and an ability to win night in and night out. That would be a pretty good setup for the team.

The team will also hope that injuries do not occur between Crawford or Blackwood. Behind them, in the system, there might be some potential, but there is not a whole lot of experience. Last season, Gilles Senn was the main goalie in Binghamton, and did see two appearances in New Jersey. In Binghamton last year, in 27 appearances, he had a .901 save percentage with one shutout. That is far from ideal, and if he were to be called up this season, you would hope that we would see improvement at the AHL level first. There are other names behind him, Evan Cormier has an ELC, and there is always Scott Wedgewood, who has seen NHL time. Cole Brady is in the system, as well as Akira Schmid and Nico Daws. But are any of those names really going to provide competent backup play at this point? I would say that is unlikely.

Therefore, for the Devils to sustain competent and even above average goaltending this season, it will rely heavily on both Blackwood and Crawford staying healthy. Crawford has a history of concussion problems, and that could be an issue if they present again this season, but barring that, hopefully things go smoothly.

That brings me to what happened yesterday, when the team announced that Crawford would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team. He never showed up to camp, and as John said yesterday, it’s personal, so no use hypothesizing what’s going on. Just pray that everyone in his family is healthy and safe.

That being said, what happens if he doesn’t show? Well, as shown in camp so far, behind him is really no one. Gilles Senn, Scott Wedgewood, and Evan Cormier have been sharing crease time behind Blackwood in these early practices. That is just straight bad news, unless one of them has improved significantly. It isn’t out of the question for perhaps Senn to become a competent NHL backup, he is still the same age as Blackwood and did play professionally in Switzerland before coming to the AHL. But comparatively, at this point? It is a big downgrade from Crawford to Senn.

If Fitzgerald wants to ice a more competitive goaltending pair, and he has internal information that Crawford will be gone a long time, it would be worth signing a veteran backup. It would keep the Devils more competitive in games that Blackwood sits, and just like with Crawford, that veteran could help to tutor Blackwood and make him a better starter. It would also be better for someone like Senn, as it is arguably better for his development to see an entire slate of games as the starter in Binghamton as opposed to only seeing spot starts behind Blackwood in New Jersey.

That being said, it is difficult to speculate who might become available as teams cut players from camp or designate them for assignment and they hit the waiver wire, but if someone decent enough for a solid price becomes available, and Fitz knows Crawford isn’t returning soon, I would think he would look to sign someone. And someone should become available. Guys like Schneider and Craig Anderson are on tryout contracts, and others like Jimmy Howard are still available. Now, some of them have been cratering badly in their play, like Schneider and Howard, but it is worth seeing who Fitz can potentially nab.

Expectations for This Season

Note: Again, this was written before the news about Crawford, but still worth keeping mostly the same in case he does return quickly. If he does not, however, the expectation, in short terms, is for Blackwood to probably get 40-45 starts and dominate playing time whenever possible. It’s the only answer barring a crazy trade or signing.

As I wrote above, the expectations are still somewhat fluid at this point in terms of start distribution. Is this going to be a pure #1, #2 situation with Blackwood and Crawford, where Blackwood will get 40 starts? Or will this be closer to a 1A and 1B situation, where Blackwood gets more like 30 starts, maybe max 35? That will be interesting to see. The schedule is a little tighter this year as compared to a normal season, so there are more games in a shorter time. That would lead one to think that Crawford will see a higher percentage of starts just to keep Blackwood rested. But it will also largely come down to performance. The job is Blackwood’s, but if he hits a cold stretch, look for Ruff to probably give Crawford some starts to let Blackwood clear his head and also give the Devils a chance to win some games.

In terms of performance, given that Crawford has been a star at 5 on 5 play throughout his career, and it was where Blackwood shined as well last season, that should be where the Devils netminders are the most effective. Both were around the top 15 in the league in 5v5 save percentage, and both had strong GSAA/60 numbers. As long as the Devils can stay out of the box, this is where the goaltending for this team should be the biggest help.

The downside, at least from last season, will be their ability to stop pucks on the penalty kill. Both were poor at it, especially Blackwood, and this is somewhere he absolutely needs to improve. If the Devils are not a disciplined team and take a lot of penalties, it could lead to a lot more goals against, simply because the goaltending is not as well suited to playing when down a man.

That being said, the most important thing we can see this season from the goaltending department is improvement in Blackwood’s game. This organization absolutely needs him to become the consistent, pure #1 that he can be. He showed that for much of last season, and it looks very much likely at this point, but it is not a sure bet. He still only has 64 starts in his NHL career and is very young for a starting goaltender at 24. A lot can happen. But one potential outcome is growth to a consistent top 15 goalie in this league, if not a top 10 one. That can happen as soon as this year with a strong season, and that would do wonders for the future prospects of this organization in the near term. You want to get out of a rebuilding phase? How about having a goalie that keeps you in almost every single game he starts in. That would be a monster step forward, and it is not out of the picture.

Of course, the opposite is possible too given the risk involved, and Blackwood could end up settling into a mediocre, better as a 1B or #2 guy like Keith Kinkaid became. If that happens, Crawford will hopefully take over this year and provide #1 work when needed, so in terms of expectations for this year, it might not have a major impact on NJD goaltender production in 2021 unless Crawford remains a no-show. In that case, Blackwood will probably play regardless of his performance, and could be worked heavily, sort of like Carey Price was last season.

However, that would be an absolute disaster for the team in the long run. That is why this year, the expectation should be to see Blackwood play in a #1 role, and for the team to do everything they can do to help him succeed in it. If he can replicate his 5v5 success from last year, and also improve upon his special teams play, especially on the penalty kill, that would equate to quality #1 stats, and would make this team a lot more comfortable about cementing him in the long term plans of the franchise.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the state of goaltending in New Jersey, for both this season and the future, looked fairly bright with the assumption that Crawford would be here. If both Blackwood and Crawford show up and play as well at 5 on 5 as they did last season, you are frankly looking at one of the better goaltending duos in the league. Perhaps the team doesn’t have the top flight goaltending of Andrei Vasilevskiy or Tuukka Rask, but both of the current Devils were more than solid last year at even strength, and that would keep them in a lot of games. However, they both struggled mightily last year on the penalty kill, so this season, they will have to either improve at that, especially Blackwood, or hope that the Devils under Lindy Ruff are a more disciplined team and spend less time in the box.

It is tough to predict what percentage of starts Crawford will take away from Blackwood, if he even shows at all. Assuming he does, however, in a perfect situation, Blackwood improves even more and becomes a top flight #1 goaltender, earning somewhere around 35 starts, while Crawford plays around 20 starts and performs as well as he did last season, keeping Blackwood fresh while also gaining his share of wins. The absolute disaster scenario is the one where Blackwood regresses and looks more like a #2 goalie in the NHL, and Crawford never shows up at all this season, leaving the Devils without anyone to really carry this team in the crease. In that scenario, you’re looking at the potential #1 overall pick next year.

Barring that nightmare scenario, however, you have to be excited about the potential future of the goaltending situation in New Jersey, strictly on the play of Blackwood, never mind what happens with Crawford. Blackwood likely will never be Brodeur, but neither will literally anyone else. Marty was the best. But if he can grow to provide consistent top 10 or top 15 goaltending in the NHL for the New Jersey Devils for the next decade, it will be a huge boon. And that starts this year.

That’s it for the season preview for the goaltenders. Please leave your comments below and discuss. What are your expectations for the goaltending position this year for the Devils? Do you expect top 10 results? Top 15? How do you see Blackwood progressing? What can Crawford bring to the table? Will Crawford even show? How do you expect Ruff to designate starts with or without Crawford? Please leave your comments below, and please come back tomorrow to read up on the power play!

Addendum

This is John. Alex did a great job with this post and his notes did reflect the possibility of Corey Crawford not playing this season with the Devils. Yesterday, the team announced that he has taken an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons. Today, that leave of absence is permanent as Crawford announced his retirement from hockey this afternoon. His short statement does not go into those reasons - as they are personal - and thanks the Devils for understanding. Again, we wish him the best in his future and for a beneficial resolution for whatever is going on.

What this means is that the Devils’ goaltending depth is Blackwood, Wedgewood/Senn, and Cormier. Based on Alex’s original writing, the hope that Blackwood is a very good #1 goaltender is still true. Unless the Devils are able to deal for a starter-level goaltender, Blackwood is going to be the main man in the net for the Devils in 2020-21. The concern about how to split up the workload between Crawford and Blackwood is now replaced by a larger concern as to who will be the #2 goaltender will be behind Blackwood. The Devils can either keep it internal with Wedgewood or Senn, or acquire a goaltender elsewhere either through a trade, free agency, or waivers. Those are the options. They are not particularly great options - especially with the season starting next Thursday. But a decision will need to be made and soon. Ultimately, the major change with this news with respect to the Devils’ goaltending situation is that the team will lean on Blackwood being as good as possible, and hope that whoever is playing in Blackwood’s place can at least be decent for a night or two.