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New Jersey Devils Free Agent Gameplan: Goaltending

Beginning our three article look at unrestricted free agent options the New Jersey Devils could pursue in free agency. We start with the position where they only need one player: goalie.

NHL: MAY 06 Devils at Islanders
Time to get MB29 some better help.
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Last offseason, the New Jersey Devils inked Corey Crawford to a two year deal to ease the load on starting goaltender MacKenzie Blackwood. While it seemed like the right move at the time, it wound up backfiring when Crawford retired prior to the start of the 2021 season. The result was a catastrophe in net, as Blackwood struggled, and all of the backups that the team tried were even more inconsistent than the overworked started who also had a prolonged struggle with Covid-19.

The Devils will attempt to bring in another goalie this offseason to again hopefully not overwork their young started. What exactly should they be looking for though; a veteran to provide leadership and take some games? A 1B to split the load with Blackwood? Something in between? Well let’s take a look at who’s available and then we can start making some decisions about where we think the Devils should go from there.

If we browse the options that are available to simply sign as unrestricted free agents over on CapFriendly, it’s not exactly a crop of goalies that improves upon what we had last year. Outside of the top twelve-ish options who appeared in double digit games, none of the remaining UFAs posted a save percentage over .901; not exactly moving the needle much more than Scott Wedgewood, Aaron Dell or Eirc Comrie did.

So what I’ve done is divided the 12 players into four groups: realistic options, reach options, bargain bin options and almost guaranteed not to sign with the Devils. From each of the categories where the players could come to New Jersey, I will be choosing one and explaining my reasoning behind it. As for the “almost guaranteed group” well let’s get that out of the way first so you can see why I group those players here:

Almost Guaranteed Not to Sign With the Devils

Tuukka Rask, Pekka Rinne, & Mike Smith

Now this section is called “almost guaranteed” for a reason and that’s because you can never rule anything out in the NHL, but these three guys in particular strike me as being as close to not coming here as you can get. Rask has been the Bruins go to goalie for pretty much the last decade, and while one could argue that he’s a 1A at best now, I can’t see a situation where he leaves Boston to go a struggling team. Even if he leaves, I see him going to a team that is more or less guaranteed to be a contender next season.

As per Smith and particularly Rinne, I don’t see either one of them uprooting themselves to come and play for Jersey’s Team. The age window (Smith is 39 and Rinne will turn 39 around the beginning of the season) also isn’t a fit, hence why again, it seems safer to rule these two (and Rask) out. Now with that out of the way, let’s look at who realistically the Devils could target.

Realistic Options

Antti Raanta, Laurent Brossoit

It’s a two horse race to start us off, but these are the options that I could both most realistically see the Devils pursuing, and also the players that I could see wanting to come here that would cost a bit more than those in the bargain bin tier. I wanted to try and go with three players in each of the remaining groups, but four of the players felt more like a stretch to me, and these two felt like they could fit for different reasons.

Brossoit has had some ups and downs to his career so far (he was in Edmonton during some bad years), but has done mostly well for himself as the backup in Winnipeg. He’s still young enough that he could keep up with the stats posted last season, but the variance in his statistics is a cause for some hesitation. I don’t think he drops off to the stats he had in 2019-20, as the Jets’ defense this season was certainly not their greatest strength, but behind the Devils’ current defense, who knows? Youth and stats in line with his 2018-19 season are causes for optimism.

Raanta would be an interesting choice to come here, and even though he had some of the worst stats last season out of all 12 players, I still put him here in the “realistic option” tier. I could see Raanta coming to New Jersey as a way for both he and the team to rebuild their value; Raanta has had to deal with injuries the past few seasons, and coming to the Devils to be a 1B behind Blackwood could be a good way for him to rebuild his value on a short deal for one more larger NHL contract. At the same time, his play would give the Devils a more solid option behind Mac than they had all of last season; Raanta would give the team a better chance to win than any of the backups that appeared in red and black in 2021. In turn, this would make New Jersey a better team and a more enticing place to play.

My Pick: Laurent Brossoit (two years, $4 million per season)

In the end, I’m going with the younger guy with better stats who is probably looking for an increased role. Both of these guys haven’t exactly been the definition of consistency during their careers, but Brossoit has room to show off more with only 82 NHL games played to this point. Additionally, the injuries from Raanta have me a bit scared off from him; if he misses extended time again next season, we would be right back to where we were this past season.

This would mark a significant raise for Brossoit, and would also line up the end of his contract with the summer that Blackwood winds up needing a new deal. Based on how 2021-22 goes, the Devils could decide if they would want to extend Brossoit and/or Blackwood next summer or wait until the summer of 2023 to make decisions for where they go in net. If Brossoit no longer wants to be the 1B behind Mac after two seasons, he could pursue a bigger contract elsewhere if he plays strongly for the Devils as well.

But what if the Devils want someone who costs a bit less or would settle for less term? Well let’s head on over to the ol’ bargain bin.

Bargain Bin Options

James Reimer, Jaroslav Halak, & Jonathan Bernier

Now before anyone gets upset with any of the names here, let me be a little clearer as to how I’m defining “bargain bin” for the purpose of this article. Quite simply with the flat cap situation and the fact that there are some more attractive options to pursue, I see these players getting deals, albeit at a little less than my realistic and stretch category players. This would be the route to go if the team wanted to spend a little less money on a backup (even though $ isn’t an issue next season) and/or wanted to show Blackwood they have faith in him being a true #1.

Reimer statistically has always been a goalie in flux; some nights he looks like a sure fire number 1 and on others he makes maddening decisions that have fans wanting to glue him to the bench. He could be in the market for one last longer deal in his NHL career. Halak struggled last season, but has been pretty consistent since 2013-14; at 36, there could be questions as to if last season was a sign of his play beginning to fall off. Bernier rebuilt some value for himself by having a good 2021 season for a not so good Red Wings team. He, like Reimer, could be looking for one more deal with some term on it.

My Pick: Jaroslav Halak (one year, $2.5 million)

This contract might seem a bit high for a guy who could be in decline, but the Devils aren’t in any cap crunch for 2021-22 and it might take a slight overpay to get a goalie with a proven track record. Halak wouldn’t alleviate the long term issues, as a player in the “realistic” and “stretch” tiers would, but he could provide a veteran fallback for at least the coming season if Blackwood struggles.

Halak has looked his best the last couple of years when placed in a backup role, and ideally that is what he would be. While he has a couple worrisome save percentage totals from more recent seasons (including the 2017-18 season where the entire Islanders team was pretty bad considering the talent they had), it’s a one year deal. If he plays Wedgewood/Dell bad, ride Blackwood, or give one of the AHL guys a shot and don’t re-sign Halak at the end of the season.

Reimer and Bernier both had increased stats in a contract year; no matter the position , those are the types of players to look out for when making signings. As such, I’m staying away from them and going with the more stable vet in Halak.

What if the Devils are willing to spend this season, desiring to improve sooner rather than later? Well we just so happen to have some attractive options right over here.

Stretch Options

Petr Mrazek, Chris Driedger, Phillip Grubauer, & Linus Ullmark

Okay, now we’re getting to the options where if the Devils feel a bit bougie and want to spend for a 1A or 1B to pair with Blackwood, these are the guys. Grubauer is probably the most unrealistic option in this group, as I don’t think the Avalanche will want to let him go, and he probably won’t want to leave a team that is still a true contender despite two disappointing playoff runs.

Mrazek, Driedger and Ullmark are all interesting options and for different reasons. Mrazek is another play probably looking for one more contract with term in the NHL; he had some phenomenal numbers last season, but only appeared in 12 games. His stats prior to 2021 were not nearly as good, so there could be some “buyer beware” tags hanging around him. Still, he will only be turning 30 at the start of next season, so there could definitely be some buzz around him this summer.

Driedger put up the best save percentage out of anyone in this category while playing behind a surprising Florida team. He more than likely doesn’t go back to them though due to the Bobrovsky contract and the play of Spencer Knight who seems poised to be Florida’s goalie of the future. Driedger could have a TON of interest given his stats, age (he just turned 27) and the potential that he has yet to display his full skill set.

Ullmark will turn 28 in roughly a month, but should have a lot of tread on his tires, having only played in 117 NHL games so far. I think Ullmark will also be a highly sought after player due to his good stats on an awful Buffalo team and again, still having youth and less NHL wear on his side.

My Pick: Linus Ullmark (four years, $5 million per year)

While I do see Grubauer as being a better player than Ullmark, I don’t think he’s leaving Colorado with all the talent surrounding him there. Ullmark would be the definition of a 1A/1B situation with Blackwood, where the team could go into each game with a player they trust between the pipes. Ullmark also has more consistent stats than Mrazek and he’s more proven than Diredger, who could get big money and then turn pout to be a flash in the pan. If the Devils want to go big, they should also go safe, and I think that Linus provides the most proven bang for the team’s buck.

The concern with any signing in this category is going to be cost, particularly because any deal with term could present an issue in the summer of 2023 when Blackwood will need a new deal. With how bad the goaltending has been for the past few seasons, I would welcome some spending to fix it. If it leads to success on the ice, then tough decisions being made in terms of salary and who to cut loose, rather than seeing CJ and I write this series of who to sign to right the ship for the fourth time by then would be a welcome change.

In Summary

When weighing options in each category (aside from the non-signs), I looked at stats for each player first before also factoring in age, consistency from season to season, games played and injury history when making my selection. Additionally in the “stretch” group, I eliminated Grubauer, as I don’t see Colorado letting go of the player who appeared in 40 of their 56 contests last season. After going through all of the factors, I would offer the following contracts depending upon which tier of players the Devils wanted to make their signings from:

Bargain Bin: Jaroslav Halak (one year, $2.5 million)

Veteran mentorship on a one year deal that could be an upgrade on last season’s backups.

Realistic: Laurent Brossoit (two years, $4 million per season)

Upgrade over last season’s backups as a 1B while also leaving open contract flexibility in the future both for the player and the team.

Stretch: Linus Ullmark (four years, $5 million per year)

A clear upgrade and a player who would probably push Blackwood to see who would get the lion’s share of games; price paid for a premium.

Your Take

Who do you believe to be realistic targets for the Devils? Which player would you like to see them sign to pair with Blackwood, either as a 1B or pure backup? Is there an off the board option that you could see as a possibility? Leave any and all comments below, thanks as always for reading, and be sure to drop by next Wednesday and Thursday when CJ and I look at UFA forwards and defenders not named Dougie Hamilton who the Devils could pursue!