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Should the Devils Swing Big to Fix the Goalie Situation?

It’s no secret that the Devils were an unmitigated disaster in net this past season. Will Tom Fitzgerald be aggressive to fix what is likely the Devils’ biggest problem?

Colorado Avalanche v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

The Devils had a number of problems this season that led them to where they landed in the standings, but none of them were quite as substantial as the issues they had in net. No matter how someone chooses to divide up the blame for a, frankly, catastrophic season at the team level in New Jersey, there is no way you could possibly construe what happened between the pipes for the Devils a good, passable, or even mediocre. The situation in net was largely an unmitigated disaster, with a whole cast of ostensible starters, journeymen, and rookies all conspiring to deliver the very worst goaltending in the league.

The combined goaltending performance from the Devils was so very bad that they didn’t end up even in the same atmosphere as the 30th and 31st goaltending groups. Their overall save percentage was .881, a dreadful number even in a league experiencing a broad uptick in scoring. By the metrics, the Devils should have had an at least passable defense based on their expected goal totals (13th in the league in all situations xGA, per Natural Stat Trick). I certainly think there are improvements the Devils can make to their defensive system and some of their personnel, but there’s not much way to spin a team giving up 66 more actual goals than expected goals (based on Natural Stat Trick data) as anything but a disastrous performance from the goaltenders.

Even if you contested that the defense was doing uniquely bad things to undermine an otherwise largely average expected goals total, there is pretty much no way to bridge the gap without bad goaltending playing a huge role. Per Evolving Hockey, out of the 113 goalies to make multiple appearances this year, the Devils had four in the bottom 20 in goals above replacement (Gillies, Schmid, Hammond, Blackwood). The other three were better but all also in the bottom 50. Not one Devils goaltender of the seven performed above the NHL’s median goaltender this season and all of them were essentially replacement level or worse.

The Devils goalies were bad at saving every type of shot from every location.
New Jersey saves versus expected 2021-22. Red is bad, fyi.
HockeyViz.com

So, given the above outlined problem, what can the Devils do to make sure they don’t have a repeat of this season? Well, as Gerard mentioned yesterday and John touched on Wednesday, you might want to consider taking a look at the goalie coach who oversaw seven bad seasons from his goaltenders simultaneously, to start. But you should also consider the possibility that you don’t have a group that you can realistically rely on in-house.

It’s not a stretch to say the Devils should be looking outside the organization for goaltending help, of course, but how big should they be thinking? There has been at least some noise around the Winnipeg Jets about the need for a refresh after a disappointing campaign. Could the Devils pry a player like Connor Hellebuyck out of Winnipeg for the right price? The Jets are in a little bit of a cap crunch and Hellebuyck had a “down” year (though he still ranked 5th in the league in goalie GAR, per Evolving Hockey), so could he be on the move if someone makes it worth the Jets’ while? Hellebuyck is pretty much the closest thing you can get to a franchise goaltender in the NHL so he wouldn’t come cheap. It’s conceivable they’d be demanding the Devils’ top pick in addition to an A prospect to go along with it. That would be a steep ask, but if the Devils truly feel that they are a stable goaltending situation away from taking the leap from also-ran to a team that can make noise in the postseason, it could be a price at least worth considering.

If making a play for Hellebuyck is a non-starter, where else could the Devils look? The free agent market isn’t overflowing with options, but names like Darcy Kuemper, who has been strong in Colorado, or Ville Husso, who has had a breakout year in St Louis, could be attractive if they test the market. I think those are the closest things to ‘big swings’ available in FA, though even those two don’t have the type of long track record that makes them a sure thing. Goalies are voodoo, after all. Some intriguing names like Jack Campbell from Toronto, Casey DeSmith from Pittsburgh or Braden Holtby, who had a resurgent season in Dallas, are also potentially out there if they make it to July 1st without a contract. Marc-Andre Fleury could also theoretically be available if the Devils are thinking about a more short-term option while they wait and see if Daws and/or Schmid can figure things out.

There are also a few other directions the Devils could go in a trade, whether it’s going after a potentially highly disgruntled Robin Lehner from Vegas, seeing if they could pull one of Swayman/Ullmark out of Boston, or even trying to nab a well-regarded prospect like Connor Ingram out of Nashville. Lehner in particular seems like a decent target, as the way this past season ended in Vegas means both he and the team could be looking for a shake-up. He’d also likely come at a significantly cheaper price than a guy like Hellebuyck, too.

Ultimately, I don’t know how big the Devils need to go but I do know that I am extremely fearful of running it back next season with no changes at all to the makeup of the goaltending situation. Yes, injuries played a big role, with the hip injury ending Bernier’s season and the ankle/heel hindering Blackwood much of the year. Even when those guys were healthy, though, the results were not there. Bernier was perhaps the only Devils goalie that you could argue played like he even belonged in the NHL in 2021-22 and he was only a shade above replacement level in his ice time. Add to that that the Devils might be bringing back the goaltending coach who orchestrated this symphony of disaster and it’s tough to be too confident in the outlook without some type of proven name coming in to bolster the situation. Can/will Tom Fitzgerald seek to actively address this situation? I think he should but only time will tell on that front.