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One Pro and Con of Splitting Starts

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With the signing of Jonathan Bernier, there will be discussions about how to split starts. Today, I bring up one pro and con of a fairly even splitting.

NHL: MAY 08 Devils at Islanders Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Throughout the rest of this offseason, you can have zero doubt that here at All About the Jersey and elsewhere, much will be written about the impact that Dougie Hamilton will have on the New Jersey Devils. It will not be a small impact, and if it goes well, he will add a good amount of wins to this team as compared to a replacement level player being in the lineup. That should hopefully be the case for most of the rest of this decade.

However, for this upcoming season specifically, the fortunes of the Devils could very likely be as impacted, if not more so, by the Jonathan Bernier signing. Any Devils fan would most likely agree with this, as you only have to think of the impact of goaltending on the organization as a whole to understand its importance. In the long run, the Hamilton signing is more important, but for this upcoming year, depending on how much he plays, it could be Bernier that has a bigger impact on wins and losses for New Jersey.

But the caveat in that statement is important: depending on how much he plays. Bernier isn’t here to be the lone #1 goaltender. Mackenzie Blackwood is here and, at this point, stands to get at least half of the starts this season. I mean, Bernier was called the 1B goaltender coming in, which means that Blackwood is still considered the 1A. By definition, you would think Blackwood has the inside track to get more starts. But how many more? What would be a proper split?

In thinking about this a little, I really boiled it down to one major positive about splitting the starts between the two goaltenders as evenly as possible, and one potential negative about doing so. Before going into them, I want to note that, regardless, I think that the signing was a good one, and will make the team better this season. When I say a potential negative, I really don’t mean in terms of the Devils improving for this season. They will be better, and that is a breath of fresh air for all of us Devils fans. However, just check out what I have to say, and feel free to add more in the comments.

First, the huge boon that having a 1A-1B situation gives to any team that employs it is that it allows coaches to make sure that both goaltenders remain at least fairly fresh. Two seasons ago, Montreal had Carey Price and basically no one else. Price, a very good goaltender, was exhausted by the end of the year, did not play as well, and the team as a whole suffered. Then, Marc Bergevin went out and signed Jake Allen to make sure that Price remained fresh and in good form. And it worked incredibly well, with Allen getting 27 starts during the season to Price’s 25. He remained fresh, so fresh in fact that he dominated the playoffs to get Montreal to the Cup Finals.

While Blackwood was not played to exhaustion like Price was in 2019-20, he did get the large majority of starts, 35 to be exact. Scott Wedgewood had 15 behind him, with Aaron Dell earning 5. This year, you have to think that his start percentage is going to drop to more like what you saw with Price-Allen. I am not sure it will be so close to 50-50, but it easily might. It keeps both of the goaltenders fresh and ready to go. Yes, the downside to this setup is that it doesn’t allow a goalie to get into a groove. Blackwood might get two games, play well, and then ride the bench for a game or two as Bernier plays. That could prevent either goalie from getting into a rhythm. However, overall, both goalies need to be ready to play on any given night anyway, so I don’t put as much importance on that as I do on keeping a goaltender from getting worn down and tired from too many starts. And I think this is the main benefit of having the 1A-1B setup, and it makes a strong case for a near 50-50 split.

The one potential negative to that, although it really depends on the mental makeup of Blackwood, is the impact it has on his development. Over the last few seasons, we have been hoping that Blackwood would develop into a true #1 goaltender. And he still might; he is only 24 years old, and has time to still grow and develop. He could end up being a true starter in this league for a decade if things work well. However, with a true split between him and Bernier, it might stunt his development, and it could prevent him from ever becoming that guy. If Bernier outplays him over the next two seasons, the worst scenario in this is that the team no longer thinks of him as the future, and the Devils are now at square one when it comes to finding the future in net. At that point, you could bring back Bernier, but he would be 34 at that time and would not really be the future, just a stopgap.

The key to this working is that while Bernier is getting somewhere close to 50% of the starts, it still is a setup where Blackwood is more like Batman, with Bernier as Robin. Maybe that isn’t the best metaphor here, but I mean it as Blackwood being labeled as the guy and given the room to develop and grow so that he can continue to be the future in net for New Jersey, but Bernier is also there to keep this team competitive this year. Play enough to keep Blackwood from wearing down, but not so much that doubt is cast on Blackwood’s future.

Now, that being said, if Blackwood comes out and stinks, and Bernier is significantly outplaying him, then none of this really matters much as you have to play Bernier at that point. Especially if the Devils are a competitive team and are within sight of a playoff spot. In that scenario, you have to go with the hot hand. But if both are playing similarly well, then I think in terms of Blackwood’s growth, it really behooves the team to give him the edge in starts, that way he can continue to grow into that #1 guy the team needs him to be in the future once Bernier is gone.

With that all being said, what do you think? Do you think the first point is the more important one, keeping both goaltenders fresh for a better season? Or is the future for Blackwood also relevant, and should that also be considered? How important is the latter point in thinking about how you delegate starts? In the end, what would you do for this upcoming season? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!