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Mackenzie Blackwood is Hurt; Now What Do the New Jersey Devils Do in Net?

The New Jersey Devils have Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek as their goaltending tandem this season. However, Blackwood left Thursday’s game with an injury. What can the Devils do at this beleaguered position?

New Jersey Devils Headshots
Remember him? He may be returning soon.
Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

Goaltending has been the single biggest on-ice issue with the New Jersey Devils in the last several seasons. Last season saw injuries and poor performance leading to the Devils utilizing seven goaltenders. All of whom performed poorly overall. The 2021 season was supposed to have a tandem of Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford. Only for Crawford to retire before the season, Blackwood to get lit up, and the team split between Scott Wedgewood and Aaron Dell as a backup. You have to go back to 2019-20’s shortened season to find Blackwood posting an overall save percentage above 91% - only for Cory Schneider, Louis Domingue, and a cameo from Gilles Senn to yield worse percentages. Ahead of this 2022-23 season, Jonathan Bernier was still thought to be out with a hip injury, so general manager Tom Fitzgerald decided to still believe in Blackwood - and trade for Vitek Vanecek and sign him to a three-season contract. That has been the tandem so far. How is it going?

Statistically, it is not going all that well.

Both Blackwood and Vanecek have been lit up in their first regular season games this season. As the season is still young and the Devils have been the stingiest team in the NHL when it comes to allowing shots on net, the save percentages have not exactly recovered since then. Blackwood’s overall save percentage is an 87.9%, a combinaiton of an 89.5% save percentage at even strength and an 81.8% save percentage on penalty kills (thank you, Bo Horvat). Vanecek has been better but not exactly “league average” with a 90.3% overall save percentage and a 87.7% even strength save percentage to go with a perfect PK save percentage. Before yesterday’s game in Edmonton (note: this is written before that game in Edmonton wherein I hope the Devils goalies are not wrecked by McDavid and Draisaitl) Blackwood has made six appearances and Vanecek has made five. It is not like one goalie has taken command of the net. Their numbers certainly do not suggest either should.

It is not all doom and gloom. For one thing, each goalie has backstopped the Devils in winning streaks. They alone have not holding the team back from getting results. For another, it is possible their first starts have held their save percentages back. I am not a fan of throwing out games this early in a season, but each goalie has legitimately performed much better since their first starts. Since October 16, Blackwood has been a little better with a 91% even strength save percentage and an 89% overall save percentage. Vanecek has performed fantastic since that home opener with a 94.4% overall save percentage and a 92.9% even strength save percentage. Blackwood has backstopped the Devils to a 2-1 win over San Jose and Vanecek put up a shutout on Colorado in a 1-0 win. Both goalies are certainly capable of being good enough to give the Devils a chance in games, even low-scoring ones. Given that the Devils have been killing, crushing, and destroying their opposition in the run of play this season and they have become more productive, the team can still win even if the goalie is beaten a few times or does not post a 90% or better save percentage in a game. It is entirely reasonable to think that Blackwood and Vanecek are going to be fine even if the overall stats suggest otherwise at the moment.

However, things are not fine at the moment. At least not for Blackwood. He left the Edmonton game in the second period with an injury. He slid to his left during an Oilers power play with his legs sprawled and immediately stayed down. He left the game immediately and Vanecek came in to replace him. Even if Blackwood’s injury is minor, the Devils will need someone to back up Vanecek, whom I presume is going to be the starter.

They do have a backup option with them on this trip. Remember Jonathan Bernier? He’s with the the team - and he may need to be activated as soon as possible.

Bernier was placed on long term injured reserve (LTIR) prior to the season due to his recovery from surgery. It was a necessary move as his $4.125 million cap hit being moved to LTIR allowed the Devils to be cap compliant. However, signs of a return happening sooner rather than later keep appearing. Bernier appeared at the home opener and in uniform for the announcement of the team’s roster. When Blackwood missed a practice due to an upper body injury last week, Bernier was a part of practice per Amanda Stein. Blackwood was good to backup Vanecek for the Colorado game; Stein noted that Bernier took part in the team’s morning skate that Friday. On Monday, Stein reported that Bernier traveled with the team to Western Canada on the trip as well as that he continues to be in practices. This all indicative of a player that is expected to play in the near future. If you need further confirmation of that, here is a quote from head coach Lindy Ruff that Stein tweeted out on Monday evening.

With Blackwood out for at least some time, the Devils are likely going to be hoping Bernier’s progression is far along enough to want to activate him. He is with the team. There is no need to rush a goalie from New York state to get to Calgary for Saturday night’s game. Of course, the Devils may need to do that.

Let us consider the situation if Bernier is good to go. Bernier’s eventual return would create a cap problem, but one that could be easily solved. Ondrej Palat had groin surgery earlier this week and is out indefinitely. The Devils may be waiting on further details for his recovery, but I would imagine he would be placed on LTIR soon. That would give the Devils more than enough room for the Devils to activate Bernier on the cap. Roughly $5.25 million provided the Devils do it soon. (Note: A player’s accumulated space is added daily in the NHL, so it would not be the full $6 million at this point.) I am a little surprised they have not done so already just to maximize the room. It is not a total fix unless Palat is out for the rest of the season, but it will provide relief for a good amount of time to figure out one. Likewise, if Blackwood’s injury is significant, he can go on LTIR to add further space.

The Devils would need to make space on the active roster if they keep the same 23-man roster by the time Bernier is good to return. That is also something easily solved by putting Blackwood on injured reserve presuming his injury is significant enough to have him out for at least 7 days. Alternatively, if for some reason Blackwood is not placed on IR, they can demote someone to Utica. This could be someone who is ineligible for waivers, like Alexander Holtz or Kevin Bahl. This could also be Andreas Johnsson, who was demoted once before and probably would clear waivers again if needed. Demoting Johnsson also has the advantage of accruing less LTIR space. The point is that there are options to easily add Bernier back.

Now, what would Bernier actually do? Unfortunately, it is a risk. He is coming off a long term injury that required surgery on his right hip. He has played all of ten games with the Devils last season. Sure, his save percentages were the best of the seven that took to the net for New Jersey last season. Which is not saying much as a 90.2% overall save percentage and 91.9% even strength percentage are not particularly impressive on their own. Past seasons in his career show he can be a capable #1B/#2 goalie. But that is the past where he did not have a hip injury. It is unknown how Bernier will respond since the surgery and subsequent rehab. He’s 34 so it is not like Bernier has a lot of runway to improve either. With the Devils’ divison being tightly competitive, the Devils can not really afford Bernier a lot of chances to figure it out. Sitting on a bench to back up Vanecek may be safe enough. One would just have to pray Vanecek plays well and avoids injury. But as Ruff pointed out, Bernier would have to play at some point. He would have to be competent right away and that is a big ask.

The safer option may be to call up one of the goalies from Utica. Bernier may not have progressed long enough to be activated. While Calgary may be entering a skid of sorts, they have made opposition goaltenders earn their keep with lots of shots on net. I would expect Vanecek to start the next two games against the Flames. They Devils would be wise to have someone on hand can actually play if needed. Fortunately, the tandem in Utica has done well so far this season - in the AHL, at least. While the team’s record is not hot, Nico Daws has a 93.4% overall save percentage in three games and Akira Schmid has a 91.8% overall save percentage in four games. Daws has more experience and the better performances, so I would anticipate him to be called up first. But either would be a safer option than potentially rushing Bernier back to active status and making some other moves to make the money work. Again, placing Blackwood on IR would free up the roster space needed and with over $900,000 left in LTIR space, either could be called up. Does this have its own risk? Of course. Daws and especially Schmid learned how difficult the NHL was compared to the AHL last season. Maybe they will be better with this past experience. Maybe not. Would I trust their chances of being at least decent over a very rusty Bernier? At this moment, yes.

However, with Utica playing tonight and tomorrow, the Devils need to make the decision as soon as possible. It should have been made by now. You may have the answer already, rendering this post as somewhat useless for the short term.

The significance of Blackwood’s injury will drive what the Devils do in the long term. With Bernier practicing and traveling with the team, I would think he would be capable of playing soon. Whether that is next week, the next two weeks, or a bit beyond that is up to the Devils medical staff, the coaches, and Bernier. Should the Devils make a call-up from the Comets, then activating Bernier would be a more simple matter of returning the call-up and then working out the money - which again, is likely to come from putting Palat on LTIR. For the next couple of games, the Devils have some choices. Once Bernier is available, the question becomes whether he can fill in as Vanecek’s backup and do so decently. If so, then the Devils may be fine. If not, then the goaltending could become an issue - especially if Vanecek gets hurt and/or starts to struggle. It may require another acquisition by Tom Fitzgerald to address the position. It may require leaning more on a now more experienced pair of young goalies from Utica. It may require hoping the Devils can out-score their opposition and hope the goaltending is just better than bad - which may be more possible than in past seasons given how the Devils have attacked this season.

Again, I presume that now Vitek Vanecek is the starting goaltender for the Devils. This brings up a question of its own: Can he do the job? He has had better save percentages than Blackwood this season. So there is that. He has never played more than half the games in a NHL season in his relatively young career of three seasons. He did make 42 appearances for Washington last season and 37 as a rookie. He posted not so amazing but not so miserable overall save percentages of 90.8% in each of those seasons. If Blackwood is only going to be out for weeks instead of months, then it may not be that big of an issue. But we are going to learn if Vanecek can play on most nights until Blackwood is back. If not, then more pressure will be placed on either Bernier, Daws, or Schmid to perform. Which carries its own risk. But Vanecek as the featured goaltender is something the Devils are just going to have to do until somebody hopefully establishes themselves as a second goalie in Blackwood’s place.

I have to sigh at the fact that one injury to Blackwood has really highlighted that goaltending remains as a concern for the New Jersey Devils.

I now want to know your take. Presuming you now know what the short term answer is with Blackwood being out hurt, are you confident with the decision the Devils made? What do you expect out of Bernier when he does return? Do you trust Vanecek to be the starter while Blackwood is out? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils goaltenders in the comments. Thank you for reading.