Welcome back everyone for part three of our 2022-23 New Jersey Devils season preview! So far, Alex took a look at the team’s forward group two days ago, while Stephen looked over the defense yesterday. That leaves us with one position left to look at today, which is the goaltenders. We will again look at the results from last season, what has changed going into 2022-23 and what we could expect (or at this position, maybe “hope” is a better word) to happen from the net minders this season. For now, let’s start our deep dive by looking back at 2021-22.
What Happened Last Season?
Prior to the start of the 2021-22 campaign, I looked over the goalie situation with the Devils at that time adding Jonathan Bernier to be either the backup or 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood. In last year’s piece, as I was discussing what to expect, I made a prediction that wound up being both unfortunate s well as close to accurate:
Ditto if either Blackwood and/or Bernier go down for an extended period of time to injury. Riding one while the other gets healthy might go okay, but if both go out (perhaps even due to a testing/injury scenario) I don’t have faith in Wedgewood or the rookie goalies to be able to shoulder that large of a load.
While Scott Wedgewood would hardly be a factor (due to him being claimed on waivers early in the season), both Blackwood and Bernier missed large chunks of 2021-22. This left the Devils to rely on Nico Daws, Akira Schmid and a couple of players who showed they were no longer NHL quality in Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond. The end result? A startlingly high seven goalies used in 2021-22, with none of them performing at a level than can even be classed as “good” let alone anything better than that.
In last season’s article, I used the term “whole lot of yikes” to describe how the Devils goaltenders did in 2020-21; somehow 2021-22 was a step backward from that. While Bernier matched Mackenzie Blackwood’s save percentage from the season prior, it was in 25 fewer games due to injury. Schmid also had a very limited sample size last season, as Nico Daws was the rookie chosen to shoulder some of the load after performing admirably in some early appearances.
Daws, however, was not ready for a full time NHL role, so the team went out and got Gillies in mid-December in exchange for the ever popular future considerations. When he played...as expected, the Devils moved Nate Schnarr at the trade deadline for Hammond, who wound up playing worse than Gillies did. With neither proving to be a long-term option, the Devils didn’t have much choice but to use at least one of them semi-regularly so as to not completely derail Daws’ development.
Mackenzie Blackwood would come back to make two more appearances as the season wound down, but neither of said appearances inspired much confidence. To be fair to Blackwood, he didn’t spend time in Utica on a conditioning stint prior to his return, he just came back from injury and played when healthy enough. With a rusty Blackwood, two rookies who were not ready for the NHL yet, and two players who needed to be sent off into the sunset, the state of the crease was looking grim.
To start with players who are still here, Blackwood is said to be completely healthy, which is a change from much of last season. Jonathan Bernier’s health may also be in a better place, as he made appearances for the Devils during training camp. His overall status remains a mystery though, as he did not dress in any preseason games.
Now on to what’s truly new in Vitek Vanacek. Acquired by the Devils on the second day of the 2022 Draft, Vanacek comes over as somewhat of an unknown. He’s played for a Washington Capitals team that has certainly been stronger than the Devils for the past pair of seasons in tandem with Ilya Samsonov. In doing so, Vanacek’s numbers haven’t set the hockey world on fire:
Vitek Vanecek, signed 3x$3.4M by NJ, has been a bit below-average in his two NHL seasons. #NJDevils pic.twitter.com/0RZiwhX1q3— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) July 19, 2022
The Devils acquired him as a restricted free agent, and signed him to a new three year contract at a cap hit of $3.4 million. While it’s not an expensive contract, it is a decent chunk of change and term for a goalie who isn’t a clear upgrade on what the team already had in Blackwood. Neither Blackwood or Vanacek has pulled away as the clear favorite in preseason action, although I expect the incumbant Blackwood to be starting on opening night. Vanacek’s task will seemingly be to challenge for the starting spot while starting out as a backup/1B. For the sake of the Devils season, they need both guys to push each other to play at the top of their respective games.
What to Expect This Season
Daws and Schmid to spend the entire season in the AHL...sorry, trying not to curse the team with goalie injuries like I did last year. In seriousness, there are a lot of factors on work leading to what we could/should expect in the crease this season. If Mackenzie Blackwood is healthy, and can return to the form he had early in his career, then I think he’s easily the team’s #1, as well as a clear upgrade on Vanacek. If Blackwood goes back to posting anywhere form a .915-.918 save percentage, the Devils will be able to pick up quite a few more wins, even in games where they aren’t necessarily lighting up the scoreboard.
Vanacek in this situation would be trying to post numbers better than he has in his career so far to earn himself more ice time. This would again present a best case scenario for the team, as while both goalies may have the off game here or there, each would be performing at or above expectations.
Alas, rarely does everything go according to plan.
Until we see otherwise, we have to go into 2022-23 expecting the Devils’ goaltending to be their weakness as it has been for the past couple of seasons. Other teams know the net is New Jersey’s biggest question mark, and I expect that to get tested right away early in the season. A few good games strung together by one or both goalies will ease some of the concerns, but I don’t think there’s much, if any, leeway being given to the goalies from the fan base.
Speaking of leeway, how much should be given to Goaltending Coach Dave Rogalski? One of only two assistants to return from Head Coach Lindy Ruff’s 2021-22 staff, the goaltending has regressed during both seasons that he has been in charge of it. I know there might be other moves fans would rather see made first, but you have to think the guy in charge of the team’s weakest area should feel a little heat under his seat, particularly if things go south early in the campaign.
Injuries occur in hockey as we all know, but the hope and expectation here has to be that any injuries to Blackwood and Vanacek are minor. Bernier is still on the roster, but if he remains on long-term injured reserve (or has to retire due to his injury), we don’t want to see Nico Daws and/or Akira Schmid being trotted out repeatedly if they are not ready for NHL level action.
There’s a lot riding on injuries, consistency and luck for the Devils goaltending this season. While you could argue that would be the case in any season, with the way goaltending has gone for the past two seasons, combined with the improvements of the forwards and defense, there’s an absolute need for immediate better results in net. All I can say for sure is that if things start to go wrong early in the season, expect moves to be made to correct the issues so that another season doesn’t go down the drain.
Both Alex and Stephen finished up their parts of the preview with an optimistic view of their segment of the roster; I am mush less optimistic on my section due to the fact that not much has changed, and I’m not sold on Vanacek. However, IF Blackwood is truly healthy and is able to pick off from where he left off earlier in his career, then I think the Devils stand a fighting chance this season.
The Devils goalies also need to avoid the injury bug by any means necessary. An extended stint without both of their top two tenders like last season essentially dooms the 2022-23 squad. While I’m not sold on this duo, some of the early preseason returns have been encouraging. If Blackwood and Vanacek can carry their preseason play over into the regular season, then maybe, just maybe this is the season that Jersey’s Team starts to make some noise in the Metropolitan Division.
Now that we’ve recapped the situation, I’d like to hear your thoughts on the state of the Devils’ goaltending for 2022-23. Do you think the Devils may have found a recipe to backstop the team to a better record this season? Do you believe Vanacek will be a good option for the Devils this season? How much of 2022-23’s success do you think rests on the shoulders of Mackenzie Blackwood? What of the other three goalies on the roster? Leave any and all comments below, thanks as always for reading, and please come back for part four of our season preview tomorrow!