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The Devils Need a Goalie Contingency Plan Again in 2021-22

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And they really need that plan to not during the first week of training camp.

New Jersey Devils v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Devils had plenty of problems this season, but among them was thoroughly inconsistent and, at times, downright bad goaltending. The goaltenders in black and red were not done a ton of favors by the defensive group in front of them, but in the NHL, the good and great goaltenders separate themselves from the mediocre and bad ones by bailing out their defenses at times. The Devils finished 29th in the NHL this season (.891) in team save percentage (25th at 5v5 [.911] and 30th on the penalty kill [.816]) and it helped drag them to a 29th place finish in the league overall. It would be foolish to say that the goalies were the only problem on this team, but they were a problem.

The post-mortem of the individual goaltenders is pretty easy to distill down into a quick summary. Mackenzie Blackwood had his worst run of results at the NHL level, possibly related to lingering effects of a pretty severe case of COVID-19, and despite some highs, particularly early in the season, he couldn’t match his first two very successful seasons in the league. Scott Wedgewood performed admirably for a guy who was out of the league the past few years, but he also showed why he is really a stopgap measure for a team at most — valuable as a backup in a pinch with occasional spectacular results — but not part of an everyday NHL tandem. Aaron Dell was grabbed off waivers but was poor almost without exception. Beyond those three, Eric Comrie made a one-game cameo between waiver claims and none of the Devils’ minor league options performed in a way that seemed like they could do any better.

It wasn’t supposed to shake out this way heading into the year. The Devils had seemingly handled the question mark behind Blackwood and found a great option to lighten his load and be the tested, veteran half of a strong NHL goaltending tandem. That option was Corey Crawford, one of the league’s best goaltenders over the prior decade, winner of multiple cups and owner of a sv% north of .915 in eight of his previous 10 seasons. Even as the Blackhawks had tailed off as a team over the last three seasons, Crawford remained strong whenever he was on the ice (though he did miss some time with injuries). It was set up to be perhaps one of the league’s better goaltending situations... until it wasn’t. As we all know, Crawford retired just a few days into training camp, leaving the Devils to scramble for options in January.

The Devils had previously signed Wedgewood as a number three option and a guy to perhaps help buoy the AHL squad. Ideally, they would have found an option to keep him in that role, but they could only scour the waiver wire and hope that someone else’s unwanted third-stringer was better than they had. As it turned out, such an option did not exist (though two attempts were made in Comrie and Dell) and Wedgewood became the de facto number two. Like I said, it’s not like Wedgewood was especially bad for a guy brought in as a number three (he did have two shutouts in 15 starts), but he is not an NHL starter, and with Blackwood slumping and missing time at different points, his limitations showed.

So while I’m not opposed to bringing Wedgewood back as a third option again in 2021-22, the Devils again must go to the free agent market to find a 1B to go with Blackwood. There are some quality goaltenders around the league scheduled to become UFA this summer, though it’s safe to say a number of them will likely re-up with their current teams. Whoever does make it to UFA, though, the Devils will likely be looking for someone who can bring stability to the tandem — someone with a solid track record who is still performing at a relatively high level in the NHL. Some names that could be available and make some sense for the Devils if they do hit the market:

  • Tukka Rask (Age: 34, GP: 24, Sv%: .913)
  • Pekka Rinne (Age: 38, GP: 24, Sv%: .907)
  • Philipp Grubauer (Age: 29, GP: 40, Sv%: .923)
  • Jonathan Bernier (Age: 32, GP: 24, Sv%: .914)
  • Chris Driedger (Age: 27, GP: 23, Sv%: .927)
  • Jaroslav Halak (Age: 36, GP: 19, Sv%: .905)
  • Mike Smith (Age: 39, GP: 32, Sv%: .923)
  • James Reimer (Age: 33, GP: 22, Sv%: 906)
  • Linus Ullmark (Age: 27, GP: 20, Sv%: .917)
  • Antti Raanta (Age: 32, GP: 12, Sv%: .905)
  • Petr Mrazek (Age: 29, GP: 12, Sv%: .923)

Some of these guys are a bit riskier than others and some (namely Rask and Grubauer) I would be very surprised if they did not re-up with their current team. There are a few decent options to pick through here, though. Some decent journeyman goalies who have performed in a few places and have been solid options in the league are likely to be available, though the Devils could go in a bit riskier direction to see if someone like Driedger has just figured it out over the past few years. Ullmark, whose future is in question in Buffalo, strikes me as an intriguing option as some pretty decent NHL stats have been overshadowed by being on a horrible NHL team in Buffalo. Guys like Reimer, Bernier, Halak, and Raanta have all been around for a while and been solid options, if not undisputed top dogs, for a number of NHL teams.

With Blackwood hopefully getting back on track next season, the Devils don’t need an everyday guy, just someone they know they can count on to give them a chance in the 40-45% of games they aren’t expecting Blackwood to take care of. Given the state of the Devils’ system in net, with the guys who may eventually be viable probably years away, they need a known quantity. I don’t think any of the options are guaranteed slam dunks but I think Halak, Bernier, and Reimer all make some sense as 1B’s and I think Ullmark, while maybe slightly riskier given the shorter track record, could be an option to turn the position into a true competition for the top spot. Whichever direction they go, I think the Devils will have to bring someone new in if they hope to have a chance at a stable goaltending situation next season.