When Corey Crawford decided to retire right before the start of the season, it left the New Jersey Devils in a pretty tight spot, one that they never really solved throughout the season. Scott Wedgewood had some really good games but was wildly inconsistent. Aaron Dell was, more or less, a train wreck, with the 3rd worst save percentage among all goaltenders this season with at least 200 minutes in net, at 0.857. Wedgewood ended at 0.900 even, but would have legitimate shutouts one night, then post a 0.692 save percentage another night. Teams need consistent output from their backups when they do draw in, and not being able to rely on that from Wedgewood was a real issue, even if he was brilliant on occasion.
That leaves the team with a hole that they need to fill this offseason. Is there a chance that hole can be filled internally? Possibly. Gilles Senn and Evan Cormier were in Binghamton this season, and there are others in the system behind them. Can one of them improve enough to warrant 25 starts next season for New Jersey? Maybe, but their stats this past season are not overly promising. In 11 starts, Cormier had a 0.888 save percentage, and in 17 starts, Senn had a 0.895 save percentage. That would strongly indicate that they need more time in the AHL.
So, that more or less means that like last offseason, Tom Fitzgerald and this organization will be in the market for a backup goaltender, one who ideally can also help to tutor and coach Mackenzie Blackwood into being a pure consistent #1 goalie in the NHL. And considering Blackwood was also all over the place, similar to Wedgewood in that regard, he could definitely do with having a strong veteran presence behind him to help him remain consistently productive night in and night out. Blackwood ended the season with a .902 save percentage according to NHL.com, which is well below his career average. But there were nights where he was dominant, and he posted 1 shutout this year along with 9 other games where he had a save percentage at 0.940 or better. The talent level is there, and a quality backup to aid in his growth would be a good asset to acquire.
That being said, who is going to become a free agent this offseason, and who would be potential targets for Fitzgerald to target? At this point, according to Cap Friendly, the Devils have over $37 million in cap space heading into next season. They will need to use a good portion of that to re-sign free agents and fill other holes, but the point is that they should have plenty of money to spend if they want to address the backup goalie position. They do not have to skimp here if they don’t want to.
So, who is available that they could potentially target? I will list a few guys here and discuss why they could work in this role. Although, of course, realize that this is quite early and who knows what will happen between now and free agency. But it doesn’t hurt to get an early look. The list of potential goaltending free agents comes here from Cap Friendly. Also, these are not in any particular order of who I think the Devils should target. I literally just went down the list and noted potential options that could work. All stats you see below come from Natural Stat Trick.
Dubnyk was traded to Colorado near the beginning of April for a 5th round pick and a player, Greg Pateryn. It was a rental trade, one for Colorado to have a secure backup for this playoff run to sit behind Philipp Grubauer. They could potentially bring him back if he has an impact during this playoff run, but there is a good chance he makes it to free agency. Dubnyk is coming off of a 6 year, $26 million deal he signed with Minnesota in 2015. At 35 years old, he is in a prime position to act as a mentor-type backup to a young Blackwood. He won’t command the $4.3 million cap hit he has now, and the Devils could get him on an affordable deal for a couple of seasons. He has shown that he is consistently available, and can eat up minutes in the crease, while helping Blackwood to hopefully grow. He has not played well this season, with a 0.895 save percentage across 22 games and a -7.57 GSAA, so he might not be an ideal choice, but if the coaching staff thinks he can bounce back, they might pursue him.
James Reimer/Petr Mrazek
With the emergence of Alex Nedeljkovic, you can bet that Carolina will not look to re-sign both of these goaltenders, so one will certainly be available, if not both. In terms of providing a mentor-type backup role, Reimer might be more suited to that since he is 33, but he also got nearly double the starts Mrazek got this season in Carolina. Perhaps both look to become starters elsewhere, but if either are willing to take a position similar to what Crawford signed on for last season before retiring, it could be a good fit. Mrazek was strong in 12 starts this season, with a 0.923 save percentage and a +4.49 GSAA, while Reimer was mediocre with a 0.906 sv% and a -1.17 GSAA. Reimer had a $3.4 million cap hit this season, while Mrazek was at $3.125. Could you see either making more next year? I doubt it, but if someone really sees one of these two as a legit starter, especially Mrazek at 29 years old, it’s theoretically possible. But again, as a 1A type of guy behind Blackwood, it could work in New Jersey.
Both Tuukka Rask and Halak are slated to become free agents this offseason. Will Boston bring both of them back? Halak is 36 and Rask is 34. It is possible they go that route, but that would leave them with a fairly old goaltending duo, with no real room for growth and development for an eventual replacement. They might want to let Halak walk and bring in someone young to mentor under Rask and eventually take his spot as the starter. That could leave Halak available. Halak had an ok year, acceptable by backup measures for sure, posting a 0.905 save percentage and a -1.54 GSAA in 19 starts. The Devils would certainly have taken that this season, from backup or starter. Halak has proven a capable goaltender in this league for a long time, and would be a great candidate to mentor Blackwood and help him grow his game, while also eating up minutes and starts, keeping Blackwood fresh. Halak only carried a $2.25 million cap hit this year, so he is definitely affordable if he hits the market.
Elliott essentially acted as the top goaltender in Philadelphia this year with Carter Hart having some major difficulties, but in the long term, Philly has to count on their young gun regaining his form and being a legit NHL starter. Even as it was, Elliott was nothing to write home about. In 30 starts, he posted a 0.889 save percentage and a -13.93 GSAA. In terms of GSAA, the only goaltender with at least 200 minutes this season that had a worse number was...Carter Hart. So Elliott will not be a hot commodity this year if Philly does not bring him back. But that could make him affordable, and at 36 years old, he could perform the same functions I mentioned with Dubnyk. Elliott carried a $1.5 million cap hit this year, and given his performance, he won’t be making more than that moving forward. If Fitzgerald wants someone on the cheap who can mentor Blackwood, and they think Elliott’s numbers this year are in part from a bad team in front of him, then he could be the guy.
This one is an interesting case. Driedger was the 1A this season in Florida, and was clearly the better netminder. In 23 starts, he had a 0.927 sv% and a +12.03 GSAA. He was excellent. And at 27 years old, he will most likely command at least a chance at a full time starting gig somewhere. However, it won’t be in Florida. They still have Sergei Bobrovsky locked up at $10 million a year for another 5 seasons. He has to be their starter, as they have too much invested in him not to be. And considering Driedger will command way more than the $850k cap hit he had this season, you can bet Florida won’t be paying him. Now, he probably isn’t a fit for New Jersey if he wants a chance at being the full time starter. Blackwood will have some say in that. However, considering how inconsistent Blackwood was this year, and the idea that he isn’t guaranteed to be a successful, long time #1 in this league, would it behoove Fitzgerald to attempt to bring in Driedger and have an open competition? That might cost a lot of money, but Blackwood is only costing the team $2.8 million, so it isn’t like in Florida where they have a boatload of cash invested in the netminding position. It would be justified to give Driedger a good amount of money, as you could do that and still be paying less for both Blackwood and Driedger than Florida is for Bobrovsky alone. That would certainly make it an interesting camp in New Jersey.
What do you think? Should the Devils sign any of these guys for next year? If so, who do you think is the best option, and why? If you don’t agree with any of these guys, then what should the Devils do about the backup position moving forward? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.