Heading into this season, it was well known that the Devils goaltending was going to be one of the team's primary concerns. The common assessment of the team was that they could potentially be an upstart if they could actually get some decent play in net. The Devils were sunk by bad play between the pipes numerous times in 2021-22 (and over much of the past five-ish years) and while the team ventured to plug that hole in the offseason, it was with a somewhat unknown/unproven quantity in Vitek Vanecek. Was a tandem of Vanecek and a constantly banged up and inconsistent Mackenzie Blackwood going to be enough to get the Devils to the serviceable level of goaltending they needed?
Well, so far this year, the Devils have actually gotten pretty decent goaltending overall. At the team level, the Devils sit in 12th overall in save percentage with a .904 in all situations through the Christmas break (11th at 5v5 with a .920 in that game state). That is a considerable improvement from the horrid .881 they put up in 2021-22 to finish 31st in the league in save percentage. There have been blips in the goaltending department, particularly at the very beginning and of late, but the body of work through a little over 40% of the season has been solid from the stable of Devils netminders.
The Devils have arrived at this state through solid performances from multiple goaltenders, but the thing that makes the situation a bit tricky right now is the goalie who has performed best this season (admittedly in a somewhat limited sample) is the rookie Akira Schmid. Schmid has rebounded from a disastrous first cup of NHL coffee in 2021-22 with a sparkling .932 save percentage in his eight appearances this season. Vanecek, meanwhile has had some ups and downs thus far but has settled in at a pretty solid .909 thus far, putting him somewhere in “average starter” territory. The one member of the tandem who has lagged behind thus far is the one who started on opening night, Mackenzie Blackwood, who trails far behind his tandem-mates in save percentage with a troubling .882 mark to this point,
With the volatility of goalies and the fairly limited sample, it’s tough to draw hard conclusions at this point, but the general state of the goaltending is enough to raise an eyebrow. If the best performing goaltender is forced down to the AHL due mainly to waiver status, would the team be smart to start looking at the possibility of a trade that moves one of the goalies blocking him, namely the injury-prone goalie with the lowest sv% and GSAx? A look at each goalie’s performance so far, adjusted for shot quality faced, puts Blackwood firmly in third place this season and has Schmid looking truly great so far. The goaltending breakdowns from Evolving Hockey below tell the story so far this season:
Now, particularly for Blackwood and Schmid, we are not talking about a particularly large sample here, but the trend for Blackwood has been heading in the wrong direction for several seasons now, making it tough to continue to have patience with him being the ongoing 1A or 1B for the team, particularly with a potential high performer waiting in the wings with Schmid.
Now, to be fair to Blackwood, his numbers are being dragged down to an extent by a handful of games that were howlers, with a lot of the other starts being solid or good. His quality start percentage of .667% (quality starts = starts with above average sv% or above .885 for less than 20 shots) is strong so far, even if the other three qualify as “really bad starts” over at Hockey Reference. There’s also the point that Vanecek has had a handful of his own stinkers this season, but he also has a larger sample of good starts to wash those out in for now. And it’s not that Blackwood seems incapable of posting strong starts, it’s that he’s becoming harder and harder to rely on between the injuries and the nights where he doesn’t really give you a chance (or at least not a good one). If there’s a player who can do potentially do his job better for cheaper, is it time the Devils considered moving on?
I would personally be open to such an arrangement, but I do understand why the Devils are reluctant to go that route to an extent. If you move on from Blackwood now, you are one Vanecek injury away from rolling with a Schmid/Daws rookie tandem (nebulous status of Jonathan Bernier notwithstanding). Maybe Schmid is for real now that he has his NHL sea legs, given how consistently strong he’s been at other levels, but it would be a lot to heap on a player with 10 NHL starts. Blackwood hasn’t exactly done a heck of a lot over the past few seasons that makes him look especially difficult to replace, but NHL teams are naturally risk-averse and goalies are tricky business.
I do wonder why the Devils didn’t consider just carrying three goalies until they are confident that Blackwood is in good form or Schmid starts to falter. They have seemed content to burn roster spots on injured players the past few weeks, so even now they only have 20 or, depending on Ryan Graves’ health, 19 healthy skaters on the roster right now. Perhaps something in the Rube Goldberg machine LTIR rules are preventing them from carrying an actually full roster (or, conversely, from adding a guy like Palat to the LTIR list to secure more breathing room while he recovers), but the roster spot is there to carry your best performing goalie if you work the right cap voodoo to keep him here. The salary cap is only real if you allow it to be.
Anyway, as it stands, the Devils appear to be set on keeping Schmid in the AHL if they have a healthy Blackwood and Vanecek, but if one of the goalies (Blackwood in particular) puts up an especially shaky run of starts, you have to ask if it’s time to call the best performing goalie so far back into the fray. I don’t know what a goalie like Blackwood would return in a trade, especially if his overall .882 sv% mark doesn’t improve, but the Devils are at the point where they can’t really let goaltending sink them without exhausting options like Schmid who has been excellent in his eight appearances this season. Perhaps Blackwood rounds into consistent form and makes this all moot, but the past few years make you wonder if/when that is coming and if he can stay healthy on top of it. If not, the team may need to consider making some bold choices to solidify the position.