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Fitzgerald’s Big Gamble

While the Devils managed to improve at every position this offseason, the goaltending position is still a big question mark. If the tandem of Vanecek and Blackwood fail to provide better support than last season, we could be looking at major front office changes.

New Jersey Devils v Washington Capitals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

When I look at the Devils roster as currently constructed, I’m pretty optimistic about this group. Five of the 6 forwards who will likely play in the top 6 are under 25, the depth is improved, and the Devils still have some young forwards who could challenge for an NHL role including top prospect Alex Holtz. The blue-line looks similarly promising with the additions of Marino and Brendan Smith. Then I get to the goaltending position, and everything becomes more murky.

While it’s true that a team doesn’t need elite goaltending to be competitive, or even to win a Stanley Cup, it never hurts to feel confident about the man (or men) between the pipes. And I’m a long way from feeling anything even remotely resembling confidence when it comes to Devils netminding. Last week I said that I think Fitzgerald made a smart buy in acquiring Vitek Vanecek. However, that’s more of an indictment of the rest of the players available than an endorsement of Vanecek. Vanecek was pretty solid at 5 on 5, and it is his penalty kill save percentage that hurt his numbers, but he still ended up giving up 5 more goals than expected.

Past the aforementioned Vanecek, the Devils have 4 other netminders under contract, all of whom appeared for the team last year. I don’t think I have to remind anyone of how that went, but I will anyway, since it’s been a while since the Devils played, and you may have, justifiably, tried to repress any memories from last season. From Hockey Reference, here are the raw stats from all seven goalies to appear for New Jersey during the course of the 2021-22 season.

Jonathan Bernier, the “best” of this group, will be on IR for the start of the season, so we can save that question for later. Gillies, Hammond, and Wedgewood are no longer with the organization so we can ignore them as well. That brings us to Daws and Schmid. Both were successful, at least in the first half of the year, in Utica. And both, well, crashed and burned is a little harsh considering they were thrown to the wolves, but certainly they demonstrated that they weren’t ready for the NHL. They will presumably once again start the year as the tandem for Utica, and hopefully show some more of the dominance they did at the start of last season. I have hopes that at least one of them will someday be a solid NHLer, but it may still be another season or two before that happens. Finally, that leaves MacKenzie Blackwood. The last couple seasons have not been great for Blackwood, but injuries, COVID, and a guaranteed contract have provided enough of an excuse for the front office to give him another shot to see if he can live up to the promise he showed as a prospect and earlier in his NHL career.

One final note before I move on. As you can see in the table above, the Devils used 7 different goalies last season. Not one of them managed a league average save percentage (.907). Not one of them managed to save more goals than expected. Two of these goalies were very successful in the minors prior to being called up. You would think one of these guys would rise to mediocrity, even if it was pure luck. But that didn’t happen. Seems to me like the problem wasn’t just in net. And while the Devils made a few coaching changes, including the hiring of former Golden Knights assistant Ryan McGill to lead the defense, one man who kept his job is goaltending coach Dave Rogalski, who joined Lindy Ruff’s staff a few months after the head coach was hired. Under his tutelage the team has finished 29th, and 31st in team save percentage. Yet, somehow, Rogalski survived the firings earlier this summer.

Fitzgerald and the rest of the front office are likely hoping an improved defense, both personnel and structure-wise, to help insulate the goaltenders a little more. This will probably help somewhat, but I don’t see it having a super-large effect considering the Devils were middle of the pack in xGA, and actually pretty good at limiting high danger shot attempts (5th in the league with 666 HDCA). Admittedly, this doesn’t line up with what I remember from watching them, but memory has a funny way of misguiding you.

So what happens if the rest of the team plays well enough for this team to ‘play competitive games down the stretch’, but the goaltending can’t hold up their end of the bargain? It’s not like that is some crazy scenario considering everything that has happened with the position the last couple years. Fitzgerald is potentially betting his job on a combination of Blackwood and Vanicek to be at least serviceable enough to not sink the team. Whether it’s because I’m traumatized by recent experiences watching this team, or because I just don’t think a whole lot of either goalie, I’m 50-50 on whether or not this will work.

Unfortunately, if it doesn’t work out, if Blackwood falters, if Vanicek’s hip explodes or he suddenly retires to become an instagram influencer, and another offseason of development isn’t enough to have Daws or Schmid ready to take over in a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ situation, it probably will cost the Devils their season. To my point last week, objectively, that wouldn’t be the worst case scenario, but no one wants that at this stage. It’s not like there is some backup plan that can save them either. Team’s don’t trade goalies that are performing well mid-season, because unless the team is actively tanking, those teams aren’t in a position to sell. And by the time everyone else is ready to admit they aren’t making the playoffs, it’s already too late. So you either end up digging through the scrap heap like last season, or overpay for a back-up from a team that has enough depth to take a chance on a younger player. But this means looking to the Eric Comrie’s and Dan Vladar’s of the world. Perhaps if Petr Mrazek regains his Detroit form, Chicago will go full Tim Murray to stop him from ruining their tank.

Fitzgerald is likely betting his and Ruff’s jobs on a tandem of goalies with sizable question marks attached to them. It may have been the best he could do given the options available, but it’s still a big gamble. Let’s hope it pays off.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of the Devils goaltending situation? Do you think Blackwood will regain his pre-COVID form if he stays healthy? Do you think Vanicek will provide competent net-minding and potentially even win the starting job? What do you think of Daws and Schmid? Are they the future in goal or just future-journeymen? How do you feel about the team retaining Rogalski? leave your comments below and thank you for reading.