Given that the Devils’ playoff hopes are long gone just over halfway through the season, it has been natural for the post-mortems of what went wrong in New Jersey to already get started. The suggested culprits of the collapse have been fairly consistent: an inept power play, a frequent lack of defensive structure, a coaching staff that regularly fails to produce a prepared-looking team, injuries, and, of course, goaltending. Today I want to spend a little time digging into that last one, because there is a well-worn tradition in the NHL of middling teams either being elevated or torpedoed by the performance of the all-important player between the pipes. Is that what is happening to the Devils? Is there a way to unravel the failures of their goaltending from the perceived leakiness of their defense? Let’s dig in a little bit to see the full picture presented by the stats and the conditions surrounding their goaltending situation.
To start, from a strictly high-level standpoint not connected from the numbers, it doesn’t take too long to determine that, regardless of whatever percentage of the problem it constitutes, the goaltending has been a major issue for the New Jersey Devils this season. Both of their top-two goaltenders have been injured for significant stretches (in Bernier’s case, he was declared done for the season after just 10 appearances), including dealing with nagging injuries during the times when they were nominally healthy enough to play. Every other fill-in goaltender — whether a rookie or another journeyman backup/AHLer — has been largely dreadful when called upon.
Aside from a single sparkling effort from Nico Daws in his NHL debut (which he immediately followed up with a throttling at the hands of Calgary), the cast of fill-ins have barely a quality start to be found between all of them. In fifteen starts from their assorted backups, the Devils have amassed four quality starts (a start where a goalie puts up a sv% above league average), three of which came in the last week or so from Jon Gillies (all losses, unfortunately for him). Despite spectacular numbers in the AHL in his first pro season, Akira Schmid has struggled in his time with the big club. Scott Wedgewood provided Scott Wedgewood-level goaltending for a handful of appearances early and then was waived. While there may be some potential for the future embedded among the Devils goaltending depth, it has proven unprepared for the big stage thus far when called upon to fill in.
Even considering the struggles with backups filling in for injuries, though, it doesn’t explain all of the Devils’ woes. No, even the top two goalies from training camp, who the Devils hoped would finally provide some much-needed stability, have not been good by any stretch. The rate of quality starts from the starting tandem has been nearly as poor as the rate from the fill-ins (11 QS in 30 starts). Mackenzie Blackwood, thought of as the potential long-term answer in goal as recently as this past summer, is garnering a lot of skepticism now on that front. He has barely registered a memorably good start, aside from a pair of isolated shutouts of the Islanders and Flyers about a month apart earlier in the season. He has yielded fewer than two goals just one other time all season. Now, Blackwood has apparently been dealing with a lingering heel injury of some sort for most of this campaign, but regardless of the reasons behind the performance, the Devils have not been receiving starter-level goaltending from their starter.
The other half of that tandem, Jonathan Bernier, was dealing with an apparent nagging hip injury early in the season until the team just opted to shut him down for surgery. In his time on the ice, he was equally unspectacular, though he still unfortunately has a decent claim to being the best of all the Devils 2021-22 goaltenders at this point.
Now, an argument one could make is that perhaps if all the goaltenders are stinking up the joint, the root cause could be related to the team-level defense. I think that there is potentially some merit to that, at least at a high level, but a dissection of the numbers doesn’t necessarily bear that out. Let’s now take a quick look at the numbers (all via Natural Stat Trick):
The picture painted here is certainly not one of a team with reliable goaltending. Bernier is the only goaltender with an all situations sv% over .900 for the Devils. Somewhat mind-bogglingly, he also happens to be one of two with a sv% over .900 at 5-on-5 (along with Nico Daws, who has about 60 5v5 minutes in net, total). For reference, an average 5v5 sv% in the NHL is probably somewhere north of .920.
The Devils are not an especially bad team when it comes to preventing expected goals, though. They are middling in that department, perhaps a bit below average when you account for some of the context like score effects (they have been trailing a lot, as you all well know). But they are not allowing a huge number of shots and they are actually moderately stingy allowing high-danger scoring chances based on the NHL’s location data. Now, I don’t think it’s appropriate to look at the Devils xG numbers and conclude, “well everything’s fine” — I don’t think the Devils are a good defensive team, but they are probably best described as a mediocre one, rather than the terrible one their goals against numbers might indicate.
By the raw numbers, the Devils’ goaltenders have allowed at least 34 more goals than expected. The old analytical rule of thumb is that every three goals in differential equates to roughly one standings point. If you remove 34 goals from the Devils’ goals against column based on getting goaltending somewhere near the league median, the Devils theoretically would add 11 points to their place in the standings. That would jump them from 27th in the league to a tie for 20th, which doesn’t seem like a huge leap but would put them much more firmly in the “plucky upstart” category with teams like San Jose and Detroit instead of the “certified basement dweller” category with the Buffalos and Ottawas of the world.
That would be a welcome improvement, surely, but it would still land the Devils a substantial distance from the playoff picture in the East. “The Devils Plus the 11 Theoretical Points Their Goaltending Has Cost Them” are still nine points out of the playoff picture with the team they are chasing having multiple games in hand. The “meaningful games in spring” goal the team set out for near the start of this season would still arguably be out of reach based on that projection.
So where does that leave us? I think there are a couple conclusions to draw from this look at the Devils’ goaltending woes. First, it is undeniable that the goaltending has inflicted a huge percentage of the misery the team and its fans have endured this season. But second, even average goaltending would leave this team a substantial distance from contention in the East. It is a big issue but should not be cast as the be all-end all to the Devils problems. They should not assume that a healthy and in-form Blackwood/Bernier will magically fix their issues in 2022-23.
Whether goaltending is a catalyst or not, there are far too many nights when this team absolutely no-shows on the ice. Tuesday’s Toronto game was an obvious example of this type of performance but there have been plenty of nights the Devils look like a team asleep on its feet. That is a big problem and one that I think has to be laid at the feet of the coaching staff. If the Devils want to move forward, they realistically need a full set of new voices in the room this summer.
Beyond that, the Devils continue to struggle with finishing and often look downright inert of late when Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt aren’t on the ice. There are still clear shortcomings within the defensive unit as well. The goaltending is a hindrance, for sure, but this isn’t a stalwart defensive unit by any means, and they make far too many obvious mistakes to confidently conclude they have zero negative impact on the play of their goaltenders beyond what the xG numbers say. The power play, despite the little false spring they had post-Christmas, remains very bad and a hinderance to the team’s overall performance.
In short, goaltending is a big problem for the Devils. Based on this brief analysis, perhaps their biggest. But it should not be used as a fig leaf to excuse all of the other clear deficiencies at work for this team. “Moderately entertaining also-ran” — while preferable to “soul-sucking disaster” — is not an acceptable end goal for this team, especially with many of their top talents now beginning to enter their prime years. If they chalk the issues up to goaltending and keep the status quo otherwise, that is very likely the place they will end up.