This morning, the New Jersey Devils had an optional skate. This is common before a game. What is not common is that head coach Lindy Ruff provided some important news regarding goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood and forward Ondrej Palat. He had information about how long they will be out for. Per Ruff (and Tweeted by Ryan Novozinsky), Blackwood is expected to be out for three to six weeks with his MCL sprain and Palat is expected to be out for eight to ten weeks after groin surgery. Credit to the Devils for being more forthcoming about a player’s potential return to the lineup. Let us go over what this means for each player.
The Impact of Ondrej Palat’s Injury Timeline
Palat has been out since October 25 with his last game being against the Washington Capitals the night before. Palat had groin surgery the following Monday on Halloween. Since he has been out, the Devils have used 12 forwards and they have managed quite well. Palat’s absence opened up a spot for Jesper Boqvist to get into the lineup. He has been a regular in the bottom six. While he is still searching for his first goal this season, the Devils have generally done well when he takes a shift in 5-on-5. Palat’s spot in the top six has been occupied by Fabian Zetterlund. The Swole Swede has given the Devils a lift when he has taken a shift. He has been productive when it comes to shooting and, more recently, scoring. His 5-on-5 numbers are reflective of the Devils flexing on their opposition. As a whole, the Devils were crushing teams in the run of play with Palat and have continued to do so without Palat.
This is not to say that Palat is not needed. On the contrary, I think he would be welcomed back to strengthen the forwards. Both in 5-on-5 and in power play situations, if only so some players who really do not fit playing with a man advantage do not need to play on one. I doubt Palat will be as unsustainably lethal when it comes to shooting when he returns - he has three goals on five shots in 5-on-5 play - but he can give a boost that, say, Tomas Tatar or Erik Haula may not provide in the offensive zone.
When will Palat come back? Presuming the 8 to 10 week timeline started from his surgery last week and no set backs, the best case scenario has Palat returning right at the start of 2023. Which may be useful as the Devils play three games in four nights after New Year’s that week. The worst case scenario of 10 weeks would put it right at the tail end of a five-game road trip in January. Unless they want to bring in Palat on the trip ahead of being activated, I doubt they will fly him out right away. Especially as the Devils return home from that five-game road trip to play four games in six nights just two days after the last stop in Seattle. If there are no setbacks, then I would expect Palat to return at some point in January. He is at least staying active as since his surgery.
The Impact of Mackenzie Blackwood’s Injury Timeline
Mackenzie Blackwood was injured in the middle of the game in Edmonton last Thursday. He stayed down after going from the right post to the left post with his legs out. Blackwood was replaced by Vitek Vanecek in the game. Before the Calgary game last Saturday, Akira Schmid was called up on an emergency basis to backup Vanecek and Andreas Johnsson was returned to Utica. Blackwood was evaluated and found to have a MCL sprain in his knee. Again, Ruff stated he would be out from three to six weeks.
Blackwood’s absence is not ideal. Any goaltender injury is not, if only for how it impacts the affiliates. Due to Blackwood being out, the Devils called up Schmid from Utica. Schmid was effective in this young season so far for the Comets. His absence meant the Comets had to call up Isaac Poulter from the Thunder. The Thunder are down to Jake Theut and Marek Mitens for the time being. The minor league status quo in net can be restored when Jonathan Bernier is able to return and play for New Jersey. Something that could be happening fairly soon as he has been practicing with the team and traveled with them on their recently successful trip through Western Canada. For now, Schmid will backup Vanecek. When Bernier is re-activated and completes a conditioning assignment (he has not played in such a long while, so I figure one would be needed), then Schmid can go back to the Comets and we shall see how much or how little Bernier plays behind Vanecek.
What this means for the Devils is that they will be quite reliant on Vanecek. He has played quite well after that rough home opener against Detroit. He has the better statline than Blackwood, although it has not been all that great in 5-on-5 for either goalie. Should he enter slump or get hurt, then the Devils will be in a lot of trouble in the crease. Something that could really undercut the great start to this season. Hope and pray Vanecek stays healthy and in form to carry the load while Blackwood is out.
The positive news is that with the worst case scenario of six weeks, Blackwood may be able to return by the end of the year. It would be right in the middle of December’s busiest week; December 12 to December 17 with four games. But that week does have three home games and could be a good time as any to get him back into action. The Devils only have two back-to-back sets to play between now and six weeks from now. If the Devils want to lean largely on Vanecek, then they can. A three week layoff could see him back by the start of December - and leave the Devils with just one back-to-back set (right after Thanksgiving) to use the backup goaltender. Can the Devils survive with either scenario? They do not have a choice, so I certainly hope so. The next three to six weeks are going to be busy with no fewer than three games per week. At least there is only one road trip, but it is a three-game run through Eastern Canada. Again, expect Vanecek to play a lot in the interim as Blackwood makes his recovery.
One More Thing
So far, per CapFriendly this morning, there has not been any change to the statuses of Blackwood or Palat with respect to the roster. Palat remains on regular injured reserve. Blackwood is not. This could change as quickly as this afternoon, though. With Palat being out for two to two-and-a-half months, the Devils could put him on LTIR. I can see the argument of that not being necessary until Bernier is close to returning. I do think they are just leaving potential room on the table as the extra space the Devils would have while Palat is on LTIR does get smaller with each day. Blackwood should be placed on IR just to keep a roster spot open. There is no need to keep him on the active roster when it is confirmed that he will be out for much longer than seven days. An extra roster spot could be used for Johnsson to return or someone else to get a call up. Again, this could all change very quickly. By the time you read this, it is possible that the team made those transactions already.
With the announcements of Palat and Blackwood being out for several weeks, what is your take on the news? Are you somewhat relieved it is several weeks and not several months? Do you think the Devils will be able to handle their business as the season picks up? Are you appreciative of the fact that the Devils have been forthcoming about a pair of significant injuries for a change? Please leave your answers and reactions to these timelines in the comments. Thank you for reading.