18 games into the regular season, and at least in my opinion, it is really hard to pin down this New Jersey Devils team. Some games they look like they can play with the best of them; other games, like last night really, they look like the bad team they’ve been most of the last decade. Matt Loughlin literally said that he hoped the Devils team would show up and do something for the third period during the second intermission. That about summed it up last night, at least when listening to it on the radio, as I outright refuse to pay ESPN/Disney extra money when I already pay them money through my cable bill, and most games that are ESPN+ only I can usually head to a bar to watch. Just feels like a slimy money-grab, and I refuse to take part in that. Yes, I would rather cut off my nose to spite my face, but I digress.
Anyway, as I was listening to the game, I realized I couldn’t quite pin this team down, as their performances have such a wide range of outcomes. So, I wanted to start somewhere and check out an area of the team, get a gauge on their numbers across the first 20-25% of the season. I landed on the goaltending as I was looking at the numbers, as what I was seeing was quite interesting. Without looking at data, the first thing that comes to my mind is Jonathan Bernier being unable to win that monster shootout against New York, and the fact that when they lose, they seem to be giving up 3-4 goals fairly consistently, which cannot be good. However, both Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood have pulled off some gems, so I was interested to see what the stats would look like.
Well, when I went to check out the goalie stats from Natural Stat Trick while listening to the game last night, I was somewhat surprised by what I saw. As of last evening, there were 56 goaltenders who had played at least 200 minutes at 5 on 5 this season. The Devils have 2.5 of those, as Scott Wedgewood has received regular playing time in Arizona and makes the list. In fact, he has way more minutes than both of Blackwood and Bernier, but most of that is not with NJ, so there isn’t much to note about him except that since getting claimed on waivers, he has been really good. Like, ranking 10th on that list of 56 goalies with a 0.938 5v5 save percentage. And considering his games before leaving NJ were mediocre, he has been excellent for a bad Arizona team.
But believe it or not, Bernier has been better than that. Bernier ranked 7th on that list, with a 0.943 5v5 save percentage across a little over 300 minutes. Now, I don’t think that has been updated with the Nashville game, so you might see something slightly different when you click on that link above, but it should still be somewhat similar. That is really, really good. Blackwood, meanwhile, has been good himself, although not as amazing as Bernier or Wedgewood, with a 0.927 save percentage at 5 on 5, good for 25th on that list. But 25th or not, a 0.927 save percentage at full strength is a good number, one that will give your team a chance to win in most games.
Now, given what I mentioned above about the Devils seeming to have too many losses where they give up too many goals, does that mean their save percentages are significantly worse at special teams? The Devils have been bad, horribly bad, at special teams, so before looking at the numbers, I figured that was pretty likely.
And, well, yes and no. If you look at goaltenders with at least 25 PK minutes so far this year, 52 goalies in all, Blackwood actually ranks 12th on that list with a 0.917 save percentage. That is absolutely incredible on the penalty kill, and is a massive improvement for him over previous seasons. I spent a lot of time during the special teams preview for this website about how Blackwood was so bad on special teams last year, and he would need to improve there if the Devils wanted to have much of a chance. And he clearly has, and that is awesome to see. Bernier, however? Yikes. Of those 52 goalies, he ranked 48th, with a PK save percentage of 0.806. Again, that might change overnight as numbers are updated, but still, that’s quite poor. He needs to get better there, or else his strong 5v5 numbers won’t really mean much.
For the power play, both Bernier and Blackwood have let up one shorthanded goal against each, which is not very good all around. Among the 47 goalies with at least 25 PP minutes accrued, only 24 have let up a shorty, and it stinks that both of the Devils netminders are on that list.
But overall, I think you have to be encouraged about the early season numbers from the Devils netminders. Both Blackwood and Bernier have excellent 5v5 numbers, Bernier especially so, but the fact that both are over 0.925 means that the Devils should be in most games they are playing no matter what, assuming they aren’t taking a boat load of penalties. And even when they do, if Blackwood is in net, they’re doing all right, as he has been great on the penalty kill this year, which is a massive improvement for him. However, if Bernier is in net when those PKs are happening, then watch out. But that really is the one main negative, and in the end, I have to think that when discussing the Devils this year, their quality 8 wins and their 10 not so great losses (regulation, OT and SO combined), you can’t really say that the goaltending has been a major reason for the 10 losses. Yes, I definitely think that Bernier should have been able to make one stupid save and win that shootout against NY, but when discussing things across the entire season, goaltending has absolutely been a net positive, not a negative. And that is a huge boon for this team, and will lead them to get their share of wins across 82 games. Will it be enough to stabilize a team that seems quite unstable from game to game? I’ll be interested to find out as the season progresses.