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FanFirst Friday: Goalies...AGAIN

Yeah so here we are 20 plus games into the season and the hottest topic is, once again, goaltending.

New Jersey Devils v Vancouver Canucks
Vitek with two Canucks at the doorstep and a Devils D behind them. Summarizes Devils hockey right now.
Photo by Derek Cain/Getty Images

Here we go again. It’s been an intense week for Devils fans. You wouldn’t think that a team that went 4-1 (written prior to the Seattle game so it could be 5-1 or 4-2 by the time this publishes) wouldn’t be having turmoil amongst the fanbase and yet, here we are. Part of it is the Devils had hoisted on them very high expectations heading into 2023-2024. Many people said that a regression from a franchise record season was expected, given that ascent to the top of the sports mountain is rarely ever a linear proposition. It’s the old cliche of taking a giant step forward and then taking two steps back.

Well Devils fans have been looking to scapegoat the Devils problems this week and it has been an argument repeatedly over multiple different aspects, but mostly the Devils defense and the goaltending and who was the most to blame for the team limping out of the gate in 2023.

Most folks seemed on board the goaltending train and it makes sense because the goalie is the last line of defense and literally when everything else breaks down, a great or elite goalie can cover up a team’s issues fairly well. The Devils have not received even good goaltending this year. Not even for a full game, really. Akira Schmid currently sits 62nd out of all the goalies to play a game this year in goals saved above expected according to Moneypuck and Vitek Vanecek, well, brace yourself for this one, he is currently 75th and the only goalie worse than his this year? Stuart Skinner. Yeah, at least the Devils aren’t Edmonton, I guess?

But I don’t want to harp on our two goalies right now. Instead, I want to lament something else and that’s a bigger picture issue. The Devils have drafted so many goalies repeatedly over and over and over. Tyler Brennan, Jakub Malek, Nico Daws, Cole Brady, Akira Schmid, Gilles Senn, Evan Cormier, Mackenzie Blackwood, Anthony Brodeur, Scott Wedgewood and on and on. It’s possible that some of the more recent ones turn into something, but it feels like the team has consistently picked guys and missed badly on them. Akira is still figuring it out, MacBlack is playing pretty well for the Sharks now (sitting at 36th in GSAA with horrific defending in front of him) and Scott Wedgewood sits 38th in doing spot duty for Jake Oettinger. Now, picking goalies can be a bit of a dartboard proposition. Especially if you’re not grabbing one of the top ranked ones (though I do think Brennan was top ranked North America in what was considered a weird draft year).

I just want to ask a question. Are they goalies the Devils are drafting and trying to develop getting what they need to become all that they should be? Dave Rogalski, the Devils current goalie coach, is best known for making Jordan Binnington from seemingly flop prospect to Stanley Cup champion. Never mind that Binnington was a third round pick, so it wasn’t like he was a late round flyer guy. There was likely a belief that he could turn into something. What was most surprising about it was that Jake Allen was, at the time, thought to be the man in St. Louis. Heck, the year prior to the Stanley Cup win, the Blues thought so little of him that they shipped him off to the Providence Bruins. Still when Rogalski was hired by the Devils, some places hailed it as the Devils getting one of the best. Rogalski joined the Devils in October of 2020. Ignore John’s reference to Corey Crawford in that particular article as we didn’t know that bombshell was coming.

Regardless, we all know how the past few seasons went. The first season under Rogalski, the Devils used four goalies. Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Wedgewood, Aaron Dell and Eric Comrie. The results were mixed, but MacBlack played the most games and achieved a .902 save percentage and went 14-17 but he suffered injuries that year, which is what led to them using four goalies. Hoo boy, you ready for 2021-2022? I won’t rehash it completely, but it was an absolute disaster in the net. Seven goalies used, the only one being over .900 save percentage was the now retired Jonathan Bernier. Nico Daws and Mackenzie Blackwood both started 25 games. Andrew Hammond and Jon Gillies took stints in goal for the Devils that year. Scott Wedgewood was lost on waivers even though he started 3 for the Devils. And Akira Schmid had his first introduction to NHL hockey.

Now I’d be doing Rogalski a disservice if I didn’t mention that Corey Crawford was supposed to be that guy in 2020-2021. We know how that ended. Jonathan Bernier was supposed to be the 1B to MacBlack’s 1A. We know how both of them went that year in terms of injuries. So a lot of those names were basically fill-in.

Enter last season when Vitek Vanecek came over from the Washington Capitals and engaged in an instant lovefest with the Prudential Center faithful. Everything from his voice sounding like the shopkeeper in Disney’s Frozen to his love of Hibachi became adorable and loveable. He started 3-1 with a .903 save percentage in October, went 8-1 in November with a .930(!!!) save percentage, struggled down to an .885 save percentage in December and then rebounded to a .932 save percentage in January. Then Vitek’s season went off the rails. His GAA sprung from the low 2s to 2.75 in February and his save percentage dipped below .900. March his GAA went up to 2.85 and his save percentage remained below .900. Yet he still went 9-5 in those months. April he played four games with a .917 save percentage, so it seemed like he was rounding into form. Then the playoffs came and Vitek was destroyed. Akira Schmid stepped in and managed to play stellar hockey to help the Devils overcome their hated rivals and move on to take on the Hurricanes. Both Vitek and Schmid struggled that series, leading to a quick five game exit.

What’s my point in all of this? Are all of these goalies and all of these prospects bad? How come the Rangers can someone revive the corpse of Jonathan Quick to party like it’s 2012 again and the Devils go through goalie after goalie after goalie. Benoit Allaire is the Rangers goalie coach and if you do a google search, all you see is tons of praise for him and his simple approach to goaltending. While the Devils had Cory Schneider during the lean years and he kept the Devils in so many more games than they should’ve be in, the franchise has had lean goaltending outside of 1988 Sean Burke and the legend of Martin Brodeur. Meanwhile, the Rangers essentially go from Richter, have a two year blip with Mike Dunham and a bunch of other dudes to Henrik Lundqvist to Igor Shesterkin. Not to mention, you can sprinkle in some Cam Talbot and Alexander Georgiev in there.

So is the disconnect the drafting and development? Is it the goalie coach? How do the Devils keep drafting goalies and still have to go outside the organization to grab Vitek Vanecek, who appears stuck in a mental morass of pain and suffering right now. How does an organization that features Martin Brodeur, in my humble opinion, the GOAT of all goalies, not do better with the man between the pipes?

Now there’s a chance that Nico Daws or Akira Schmid or Jakub Malek or Tyler Brennan change this and hopefully sooner than we expect. But as of right now, it’s incredibly frustrating to constantly have worry whenever the opposing team shoots the puck. You know, that tends to happen in hockey games. Sometimes a lot. And I think I’ve increaed my grey hair count significantly watching the Devils goaltending since Cory Schneider left. I thought Blackwood was the heir apparent, but now he’s trying to become that in San Jose. Wedgewood has developed into one of the better backups in the league. But it isn’t happening with the Devils.

I wanted to dive into this simply because I don’t have an answer how a front office that features the GOAT goalie can’t seem to find an even league average goalie. One final note before I leave you with this unanswered question that leaves me quite vexed.

If you have a free moment and goaltending fascinates you nearly as much as me, take the time to listen to this fantastic podcast. There’s nothing specific to the Devils in here, but it features one of the best goaltending experts around (he predicted Charlie Lindgren and Connor Ingram becoming something before anyone else did). It also talks about just how much more difficult goaltending is these days then almost any other time in league history. It also talks about MacBlack potentially being the stud we all thought he was going to be until it all went off the rails.

Maybe you’re smarter than I am and can pin down the goalie issue. I sort of wish the talk around this team wasn’t always, well, they’re a goalie away. Maybe the dream will someday be fulfilled. One can hope.