Welcome to part three of our the week-long preview of the 2021-2022 New Jersey Devils. Yesterday, Stephen discussed the defense and moves made to shore up that part of the lineup. Today we move on to the only personnel not yet discussed in the goalies. While we have a couple of familiar names to discuss in today’s piece, there’s a couple new names joining the organization, both at the NHL and AHL levels. Let’s start today off by looking at last season’s performance before we jump into anything related to this season or beyond.
What Happened Last Year?
I’d like to start this section off with some sort of positive note, so I’ll begin by saying that MacKenzie Blackwood came out of the gate roaring hot, posting a .940 or higher save percentage in each of his first three contests. Then he (and pretty much the entire team) wound up catching Covid-19; between recovery and an already accelerated schedule becoming even more condensed, everything went downhill. Want proof? Take a look at how everyone who played at least one game in net for the Devils did last season:
Whole lot of “yikes” among those stats, no matter which goalie you look at. The save percentages at season’s end were bad all across the board, even the one game that Eric Comrie gave the Devils in a winning effort. Aaron Dell in his limited appearances played well below average, and as a result finds himself starting in the AHL (albeit under the Buffalo Sabres umbrella) this season.
As per the two goalies still with the Devils, I’m willing to give both of them a bit of leeway due to A) the entire team not exactly being great and B) many players struggling with lingering symptoms from when they were ill. However, I’m not willing to let them off the hook completely; of special concern should be the goals saved above average (GSAA) column. Blackwood in particular was letting in multiple goals that he should have stopped, and when you consider how amazing he looked to start the season, this number is an even bigger disappointment. I’m under the assumption he’s going to want to bounce back in a big way this upcoming season, but will he? We’ll get to that a little bit later.
Wedgewood meanwhile brought quite a bit of average to subpar goaltending in his role that unexpectedly expanded prior to the start of the season. He returns on another one year deal, but should see a reduced role in 2021-22 provided everything goes according to plan.
I’ll take a moment here to note that, as Stephen pointed out yesterday, while the 2021 Devils defense was a step up from the 2019-20 group performance, it still was not good. I have to assume that playing behind the tire fire that was the Devils defense, particularly after the trade deadline when the team traded their best defender in Travis Zajac, (I stand by what I just said) probably resulted in the goaltending stats taking a nosedive. An improved group of defenders should help take some pressure off of the guys in net in 2021-22, but we will have to wait at least until Friday to begin to see if that holds true.
One major thing has changed at that would be the team bringing in a veteran goalie to backup/mentor Blackwood. If that concept sounds familiar, it’s because the Devils tried to do exactly that last season as well. This time they inked Jonathan Bernier to a 2 year (again, this seems very familiar) deal at $4.5 million per; the salary is possibly an overpay, but the team was in need of a solid backup/1B and the cap hit won’t be an issue this season or next.
I mentioned above that the Devils brought Wedgewood back again, but this season he should slot in firmly as the third string goalie (provided that Bernier doesn’t decide to retire in the next four days) and will more than likely be waived today unless the Devils plan to carry three tenders. The team will also have Nico Daws and Akira Schmid in Utica, which changes everything about the minor league netminders from last season. The two youngsters (Daws in particular) showed some promise this preseason, but unless literally everything goes wrong in terms of injuries and performance this season, it’s probably best for both of their development curves to spend the season in the AHL.
What to Expect This Season?
Well, if we want to start with Jonathan Bernier, I think we can at least expect some better goaltending than what the team got from Wedgewood last season, regardless of the defense. As you can see from above, thanks to the stats/tweet from JFreshHockey, Bernier is usable either as a backup or in a tandem role, and while the hope is for Blackwood to seize the reins, Bernier provides a nice fallback option if the MacKenzie struggles. I would wager we’ll see Jonathan for roughly 20-25 contests this season, with a larger share coming his way if there are injuries or struggles.
As per MacKenzie Blackwood, the hope is that he returns to the form he showed during his best moments of last season. He’s not going to be a .940 or better SV% every game obviously; heck that would make him pretty much superhuman in net! The Devils, however, do need him to find a consistent level of his game where he performs well, stops all of the shots that he should (and steals a few more from going in) and gives the team an opportunity to win each time he starts a game.
The question marks today come in the forms of player availability and depth. As of this writing, Blackwood is the only Devils player not vaccinated, although after some testing issues last week, he’s said he’s leaning toward vaccination. If he chooses not to go through with it after all, not only is he ineligible to play any games in Canada, but he also could be stuck on the sidelines repeatedly for inconclusive or positive tests. That would leave the Devils without their #1 guy for varying amount of time, during which they may have to go into their depth beyond Bernier, which much like last season, could be troublesome.
Ditto if either Blackwood and/or Bernier go down for an extended period of time to injury. Riding one while the other gets healthy might go okay, but if both go out (perhaps even due to a testing/injury scenario) I don’t have faith in Wedgewood or the rookie goalies to be able to shoulder that large of a load.
I’m going to sit here and inject (pun maybe intended?) some positivity into my concluding thoughts here. While we will see some minor wear and tear injuries on both goalies this season, I think the stars align for the guys in net this season. Blackwood gets the lion’s share of starts while truly establishing himself as the Devils’ #1, Bernier brings some quality backup and relief appearances as needed, and both players thrive behind a rebuilt Devils defense.
What are your thoughts on the Devils’ goalie tandem as we sit only a few days away from the 2021-22 season opening? Do you believe this pair can backstop the team back to success? Does the lack of depth beyond Blackwood and Bernier concern you? Are you worried about the possibility of one or both missing time? Leave any and all comments below, thanks as always for reading, and come back for Part 4 of our Season Preview tomorrow!