The Devils are having a bad time right now. Eight straight losses, embarrassing blowouts at the hands of rivals, inoperable special teams, and a lack of finish are all contributing to a miserable month of hockey in New Jersey. The Devils are making a beeline for the bottom of the standings and there are plenty of things to pin it on. The chief reason for the latest Devils’ freefall, though, has been the performance of the team’s goaltending battery, which has been mind-bendingly bad in the month of April.
Before the latest howler from the Devils goaltenders last night, Gerard made the point that the situation in net is not the only culprit for the Devils struggles, a statement I think most would have to agree with. The Devils have some serious issues to sort out beyond the situation in net, namely their hideous special teams, but it would be foolish to discount how much the goaltending is helping to drag them into the abyss. The Devils are 30th in the league in all-situations save percentage this season (ahead of only the Comic Stylings of the Philadelphia Flyers), with an .888 team save percentage that cannot be pinned entirely on loose defense or a bad penalty kill.
Mackenzie Blackwood was scorchingly hot early on and has pretty much been Arctic Circle cold since late February, with his save percentage dropping sinking like a stone to .900 on season after the strong start. The rest of the Devils’ stable of goaltenders has been pretty much as advertised since the surprise retirement of Corey Crawford. Scott Wedgewood had a few isolated terrific starts early on, including two shutouts, but has been generally brutal otherwise, especially in his last five appearances. Aaron Dell, owner of the Devils sole April W for what it’s worth, has done his best to indicate why he was available on waivers earlier this season. Eric Comrie (remember him?) posted one adequate start and is, essentially by default, the Devils best performer in net this season.
In terms of watching the on-ice product, a team operating with flailing goaltenders will be regularly painful viewing. The Devils are down by multiple goals in the blink of an eye what feels like nightly, usually within the opposing team’s first ten shots on goal. The Devils have allowed fewer than three goals twice in the 17 games they have played since March 23rd. The only goalie to post a save percentage north of .900 in any of his appearances in that run is Blackwood, and each of his past six starts have fallen well below that threshold. In April in particular, the Devils goaltenders have made a mockery of the position, posting a collective .843 save percentage so far this month. Including all of the empty netters they have given up in desperation time (7), they have allowed by far the most goals of any NHL team this month (56), outpacing even the equally-miserable Columbus Blue Jackets (48) by eight goals and the third-leakiest Montreal Canadiens (39) by 17(!).
The offense has gotten its share of criticism this month, including from me, but the fact of the matter is the Devils are close to middle of the pack in their total goal-generation in April. They are just getting steamrolled by all the goals they are allowing. I won’t try and argue that the Devils defense particularly good either but I also think, with relatively competent goaltending, they’d be seen as a generally mediocre unit. To wit, the Devils have allowed about 30 expected goals against in April, meaning the 56 actual goals they have given up represents a disparity of twenty-six goals above the expected. Expected goals are not a perfect measure of circumstances, but there really isn’t a way to spin a difference of that magnitude between the expected and actual that doesn’t land on the head of the goaltenders. They have been terrible.
Here’s the good news about that, though: despite all the understandable angst, the rest of the team is playing okay right now, within reason. Score effects have driven some of these near-comebacks they’ve put together, but the skaters are still playing mediocre-at-worst hockey when you piece together the underlying numbers. The final score is always most important, but if your goalies are allowing two goals that they shouldn’t every single night (which has been the case this month), it is almost impossible to win hockey games in the NHL. Fixing a goaltending situation is not the easiest thing in the world, but it is also easier than fixing an entire roster.
The currently heinous goaltending pulling them closer and closer to the top of the lottery odds, the Devils could be locked into a top-five pick when all is said and done a the end of the season. Some might argue that a very young team acquitting themselves fairly well while a slapped together goaltending group pulls them down to a top pick is a best-case scenario. I think there is truth in the conventional wisdom that teams and players need to “learn how to win” on some level, but in the end, hockey teams win because they have good players. If some of the Devils players like Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, Jesper Bratt, and other young supporting case members like Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen are out there demonstrating that they are good players while a couple of stopgap goalies sink the team to the bottom of the standings, well, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing in the long run.
So Sherman Abrams salutes you, Devils goalies. You have made the dream of catching a Buffalo Sabres team that lost 18 games in a row earlier this season an actual possibility.