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The Growing Case Against New Jersey Devils Goaltending Coach, Dave Rogalski

The 2023-24 New Jersey Devils goaltending has not been good. With few answers for help, perhaps the team should consider changing their goaltending coach, Dave Rogalski. This post makes a case against Rogalski as he is in the middle of his fourth season with the team in this role.

New Jersey Devils Headshots
Hi, Dave. How’re your goalies?
Photo by Andrew Maclean/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the most glaring issues with the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils is goaltending. For all of the mistakes made on defense, be it from effort or system, the goaltenders have not been good at all. Prior to last night’s game in Seattle (where Akira Schmid actually goalie’d an opponent in a 2-1 win), according to Natural Stat Trick, the Devils owned the league’s worst 5-on-5 team save percentage at 88.85% and the league’s second worst all situations team save percentage at 87.22% (second to Carolina’s 86.72%). The Devils are simply not getting enough stops and it has made their games that more challenging. Even their wins leave many of the People Who Matter unconfident about what this team can do. Or even if this team can even make the playoffs.

The simple answer of getting a new goalie is easier said than done. The farm system does not likely have an answer. Nico Daws was only released from IR today; Erik Källgren is rocking a hideous 85.1% overall save percentage in 9 games with Utica (rookie Isaac Poulter is on an AHL only deal); and Keith Kinkaid has a not-at-all-better 87% save percentage in 9 games with Chicago. None of these are real options at the moment. Maybe Daws gets healthy and gets going quickly, but even that will take a few weeks to bear out.

What about the free agent market? Really? Do you really want a 38-year old Jaroslav Halak that even Carolina - a team with goaltending issues as bad as New Jersey - did not sign? And he may be a better option than other outstanding UFAs like Jon Gillies, Aaron Dell, Brian Elliott, Michael Hutchinson. With European leagues ongoing, going overseas to get someone may not be possible to bring over until much later in the season. By then, it may be too late.

What about a trade? What about it? The Devils are hardly the only team that would be interested in a goalie - see Carolina and possibly Toronto given Joseph Woll’s injury last night - and the offerings range from hopeful to not really upgrades. The pool of offerings got smaller within this past week with Sam Montembeault signing an extension with Montreal and Jakob Markstrom of Calgary suffering an injury. Sure, the performances of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid will make a 90.6% save percentage from John Gibson looks real desirable right now. Then you see his contract and may correctly conclude that it is a high price to pay for a possible improvement today. And Gibson is one of the more viable options in the net to be dealt as Anaheim has both little to play for and reason to clear up cap space. Knowing that there are more buyers than sellers, the cost to get a possibly not-much-better goaltender could be big enough to not even be worth it.

I believe this contributes to why GM Tom Fitzgerald said this about the goaltending back on November 8 after a 3-6 loss to Colorado ($):

“I think we’re doing a lot of good things, but there are areas that we’re still working on. Our puck management, our D-zone, assignments. But that takes time,” Fitzgerald told NJ Advance Media earlier this week. “People want to say things, or evaluate our goaltenders, blah, blah, blah – we’ve got to play better in front of them! Give them a chance to stop pucks. You can’t keep giving up high-quality chances and ask for miracles. And we’ve got a couple.

“Vitek made a couple huge saves over the last couple of games that the game could have got away, but he kept us in the game. We need to clean that stuff up in front of him for me, personally, to evaluate our group.”

About a month later and I think the only untrue statements here are the “keep giving up high-quality chances” and “Vitek kept us in the game.” The former is provable given that the Devils have the league’s eight best expected goals against rate of 2.42, a stat driven by scoring chances allowed. The latter, well, I do not need to detail. Still, Fitzgerald’s larger point of the Devils need to be better in front of their goalies remains true. I said it then and I am saying it now. Only now, I am pointing out that this could be said is a bit of a problem for all of Ruff’s staff. Seriously, do we need Fitzgerald to go to a practice and tell John Marino to not let guys stand behind him or wingers that they have to try cover someone on the weakside (start with Timo Meier) or the skaters as a whole that it is OK to tie up a stick in coverage around the net? Because he can just as he could a month ago.

This means the Devils need to find some answers internally. Short of prayer for the goalies to return to last season’s form, one they should consider is a change on their staff. No, not Lindy Ruff. Not yet. Dave Rogalski, the team’s goaltending coach. You see this in other sports, especially in football, where assistants or coordinators in charge of parts of the game get fired for poor performances. No, those coaches are not on the field making the plays. They are responsible for those plays to be made by the players as well as what the calls, adjustments, and motivations even are for those players. It works, to some extent, in football. Why not hockey?

It could be seen as a bit rash to lump it all on Rogalski. However, I do think his body of work demands some question. This is his fourth season with the New Jersey Devils and sixth in pro hockey as a goalie coach. I think now is a good time as any to see how the goalies he coached have done with them and since being with Rogalski. I think you will see that he has not exactly elevated the performances of his goaltenders - at least not in the wider view of save percentages.

Dave Rogalski in St. Louis

Rogalski broke into the pro game with the St. Louis Blues organization. He was there for three seasons as a development coach, focusing on goaltenders, from 2017-18 to 2019-20. My understanding was that he oversaw the goalies in their AHL affiliate at the time in San Antonio as well as helping with goalie scouting. Well, how did those goalies do? In the AHL, they were, well, a mixed bag. Three of them are in the NHL today. I would not credit him for one for their growth, and one of those three he gets plenty of credit for:

San Antonio Rampage Goalies 2017-2020
San Antonio Rampage Goalies 2017-2020
TheAHL.com

Clearly, the Rampage had some issues. But you can see two names right away: Jordan Binnington and Ville Husso. Both are NHL goalies. Both made it to St. Louis. Binnington was with Providence in 2017-18 - I presume Rogalski advised him from there - and he did quite well with the P’s. Binnington started off well in San Antonio, got a call up, got hot, and led St. Louis to their first ever Stanley Cup in 2019. A development big enough to warrant mention in his bio at the Devils’ website:

Rogalski, spent three seasons, from 2017-2020, as the Goaltender Development Coach for the St. Louis Blues. In that role, Rogalski was responsible for the training, film breakdown, and skill development of the Blues’ young goaltenders and scouting goaltenders for the NHL Draft. He also crafted video packages and reports on opposing goaltenders and would visit goaltenders throughout the St. Louis system. Rogalski is credited with influencing Jordan Binnington’s success late in the 2018-19 season, and his subsequent run to the Stanley Cup Championship with St. Louis.

Let us put a pin in that. In terms of developing a goaltender, Ville Husso is another feather in the Rogalski cap. Husso spent three seasons with the Rampage before getting a shot in the NHL and sticking with it. Earned himself a fat contract from Detroit too. Husso’s time with the Rampage was not consistent. He was awesome in 2017-18, much poorer in 2018-19, and he rebounded a bit in a COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. Still, that is another prospect-to-NHL goalie that Rogalski can take some credit for helping along the way.

The third goalie among this cadre is Joel Hofer. He is St. Louis’ #2 goaltender right now. I do not give Rogalski a ton of credit for this one as Hofer got one AHL game after his WHL season in 2018-19. Hofer went back to major junior for 2019-20. Rogalski left the organization to join New Jersey and Hofer spent three seasons in the AHL - one with Utica, two with Springfield - before Hofer broke through to the NHL this season. I guess you could say Rogalski helped him while he was in junior and Hofer seemed good there. And since Hofer was one of four goalies the Blues drafted while Rogalski was in the organization, you can give him some credit there. I think it is a bit of a stretch.

The other goalies in San Antonio were a mish-mash of AHL vets and goalies lower on the depth chart getting a chance. And the other three goalies St. Louis drafted with Rogalski in the organization were Vadim Zherenko (he’s in Springfield now), Colten Ellis (in his third ECHL season), and Will Cranley (in Reading of the ECHL, could play for Springfield). They are question marks yet to be be answered. The real gems in his three seasons in the Blues organization were Binnington and Husso. How have they done since Rogalski was involved, somewhat, in their careers?

Binnington and Husso, Post-Rogalski
Binnington and Husso, Post-Rogalski
Natural Stat Trick and HockeyDB

Binnington’s 2018-19 remains the apex of his career so far. Understandable with the Cup win, but also in terms of just raw save percentage. He was on fire in those 32 games. He was actually pretty good over the next two seasons, shortened as they were. It does appear he fell off in 2021-22 and 2022-23, with the 2021-22 season allowing Ville Husso to ascend. Maybe Binnington missed Rogalski? Maybe, but this current season so far has been a rebound season for the 30-year old goalie. He has been back to his better form. Not as good as his 2018-19 breakout and championship season, but good all the same. You could credit Rogalski for helping him get to the show and maintain a career there even after the hotness wore out.

Husso did make it to the NHL after Rogalski left and has stuck around. Whether you would call him good is questionable. Husso had one really strong season in 2021-22, got the bag from Detroit as a result, and Steve Yzerman is paying for it. Save percentages in the 90% range in 5-on-5 and below 90% in all situations is not too different from a Devils goalie Rogalski did work with for a couple of seasons. But, hey, Husso is a NHL goalie and perhaps he misses Rogalski more than Binnington would. I wish I could say the same for the netminders who worked with the man in New Jersey.

Dave Rogalski in New Jersey So Far

Rogalski, with the credit of Binnington elevating his profile, got the job from Lindy Ruff and joined the New Jersey Devils on October 23. As you may be aware, goaltending has been a bit of an issue for the Devils for the better part of the last four seasons. Here is a breakdown of all of the goalies Rogalski coached in New Jersey since joining the team:

New Jersey Devils Goaltenders, 2020-21 to December 06, 2023
New Jersey Devils Goaltenders, 2020-21 to December 06, 2023
Natural Stat Trick and HockeyDB

The Devils have went through 10 different goalies over the last four seasons. Some were just stop-gap offerings like Aaron Dell or Eric Comrie in 2020-21 or Andrew Hammond in 2021-22. However, the names that survived multiple seasons really stick out to me here:

  • Blackwood went from a below decent, goalie in 2020-21 to a worse one in the following seasons. I know he suffered ankle injuries but when he could play, he played his way out of New Jersey. Not exactly a great reflection of Rogalski’s coaching.
  • Wedgewood went from a below decent goalie meant to be a #2 goalie to a guy placed on waivers. Unlike a lot of waiver losses, this one became notable.
  • Schmid went from a guy being thrown into the fire way, way too early in 2021-22 to taking Blackwood’s job by the end of 2022-23 and Vanecek’s in the 2023 playoffs to being a goalie on par with Jon Gillies in this season so far before the win in Seattle. And Schmid has been the statistically superior goaltender this season for New Jersey. P.S. That win in Seattle bumped those save percentages up to 2020-21 Blackwood levels. Better but still not where you would want to see a goalie a season removed from a 92.2% across 18 games.
  • Vanecek was acquired in a trade from Washington. He provided the demanded / wished Decent to Good Goaltending for the Devils in 52 games. This season, he is playing like he is Jon Gillies in disguise. But with 9 wins, he kept getting starts. Sometimes to the detriment of his own form, such as that Vancouver game.

In three of those four goalies, they performed worse in following seasons. While some of this can be attributed to the variation inherent in the position, it cannot all be chalked up to that. Or just bad nights. Drops in 2-4% in 5-on-5 or all situations save percentage make me question what the goalie coach is telling his goalies. If the issue is mental, then what is the goalie coach telling his charges to maintain confidence in the face of struggles? If it is technical, then what is the goalie coach instructing in video sessions or practices to address it?

Vanecek’s rebound control, for example, has been a noticeable nightmare this season. It absolutely was not this bad in 2022-23 and it did not cost the Devils so many goals. You and I may not know why this is happening. I would expect the goaltender’s coach to have some theories as to why and, more importantly, some ideas on how to fix it. You and I definitely know it has not been fixed.

In fairness to Rogalski, some of these goalies were on their last legs. Aaron Dell did some spot duty in Buffalo and San Jose since his seven games in NJ. Gillies played just 3 NHL games after his time in New Jersey, all bad with Columbus. Comrie had a hot 2021-22 in Winnipeg and has been Buffalo’s depth goalie since while playing like one. Daws has been kept in Utica (and currently on IR), Bernier’s career is basically over, and Hammond’s appears to be as well. That said, I want you to notice something about Dell, Wedgewood, and Blackwood since they left the Devils organization:

Dell, Wedgewood, and Blackwood Post-Rogalski
Dell, Wedgewood, and Blackwood Post-Rogalski

They all played better! OK, Dell’s a stretch in this regard given the few number of games. But Blackwood is having something of a rebound season while playing behind a terrible San Jose team meant to be terrible. He has a shot of matching his 2020-21 stat line back when some of the People Who Matter felt he could still be good one day. You can even unironically claim he would be an improvement over the current tandem. His current save percentages are better than both Schmid and Vanecek and he is doing it for a team that bleeds shots. As someone who repeatedly pointed out earlier this year about how Blackwood played his way out of New Jersey, I take no joy in this fact.

I really take no joy about Wedgewood. He was picked up on waivers by Arizona. He played much better on what was then a really bad Arizona team. That squad sent him to Dallas, where he was a perfectly fine depth option behind Jake Oettinger. Wedgewood has since done quite well in this role. No, he is not going to make the Stars amazing but he does exactly what you want from a #2 goalie: someone to step in, give the main guy some nights off, and perform well so his team can still get wins. Even if the records were not great, an overall save percentage of 91.5% is acceptable. And that number is also better than anything the Devils had under Rogalski except for 10 games of Jonathan Bernier in 2021-22 and 18 games of Schmid in 2022-23. You can unironically claim the Devils never should have exposed Wedgewood to waivers. Also that he thrived away from Rogalski.

Summary & Your Take

To be fair to the goalie coach, this is just three examples and one of them is a real stretch to even include. But seeing Wedgewood provide the level goaltending a lot of the People Who Matter crave in New Jersey right now as Dallas’ backup along with Blackwood not getting destroyed like Vanecek, it raises questions about what Rogalski was doing. Combine that with how the Devils goaltenders have done under him, especially the huge drops in performance by both Vanecek and Schmid, and the case against Rogalski grows.

I understand the goalie coach cannot manufacture talent but just three out of ten goaltenders posting all situations save percentages above 91% over the last four seasons either means management has been terrible with evaluating goalies or Rogalski is letting them down. Seeing Vanecek and Schmid - two of those three - sit at 87.7% and 89.1% respectively before the Seattle game makes me feel Rogalski could very well be more responsible than just whichever goalies the Devils bring in. Short of a big turnaround for either of them this season, no Devils goaltender has improved in save percentage season over season except for Blackwood’s bad 2021-22 to a not-good 2022-23. Also not a good sign for the goaltender coach elevating his goalies.

And similar to what I write about the coaching staff, I believe that if the same issues are repeated, fault for that increases towards the coaches. No, they cannot get on the ice and do it better. They can get the player to do it better. Or even go to management to request different or better players. We know that is far easier said than done and Fitzgerald is already on record with wanting to see improved play first - something that arguably has not happened. Vanecek’s rebound control, again, has taken a nose dive compared with last season. That it has not seen much improvement over 16 appearances already makes me wonder what, if any, value Rogalski is bringing to the goalies to help them do their jobs better.

I can understand the eventual lament that it is easier to fire a coach than multiple players. However, the Devils have few immediate options. Fixing their issues on defense is something they can and should really do regardless of whether the goalie is bailing them out or not. As stated earlier, the goalie market for a trade is thin and Fitzgerald may not want to pay an inflated cost for a new goalie to come in and not be good. Assuming Fitzgerald wants to even try knowing those skater-based issues are confounding the Devils’ goaltending woes. There is no relief in sight from the AHL. Hoping the goalies get hot will get the Devils out of their status quo. Schmid’s game in Seattle grows that hope. But hope is not a plan. The only real change that I see that the Devils could do right now that may have some actual impact is to change their goaltender coach.

I understand it has not been all bad for Rogalski. But the evidence has been and is mounting against him. Vanecek’s and Schmid’s current struggles alone could warrant a change in his position. Rogalski’s biggest claim to fame is getting Binnington ready and getting credit for a hot 2018-19 season - which was six seasons ago. Husso (and Hofer) have made it but Husso has been performing on a Blackwood-ian level whereas Hofer is currently depth. The other goalies St. Louis drafted are in the system but who knows if they will remain in the system. In New Jersey, you can count on one hand the number of decent seasons from a goalie under Rogalski and just one finger for a season-over-season improvement. The fact that Scott Wedgewood and, to a lesser degree, Mackenzie Blackwood has been performing better away from Rogalski is also a mark against him. Yes, you can take 2023-24 Blackwood and Wedgewood - the same main tandem in 2021 - and that would be a better performing tandem than Vanecek and Schmid right now. That is the opposite of progress. If Rogalski has not elevated his goaltenders or made them play better or helped a goalie get ready for a good career since Binnington and Husso five-plus years ago, then what is he still doing here again?

Do I expect the Devils to replace Rogalski in the middle of this season? No. Ruff hired him and has stuck with him since he was hired. Every season has had a rationale not to change. The first season was shortened by COVID and it was his first, after all. The second was loaded with injuries, young guys having to play above themselves, and almost every veteran failing to provide stop-gap duty. The third was a record-setting season by Ruff; how can you change after that? Unless things turnaround over the next 58 games, I am wondering what it could even be in the 2024 offseason. I would prefer the Devils to make a change to make themselves better now instead of then. But I recognize that these changes are not common. Then again, the Devils are now a team that can go 5-1-0 in their last six games and still remain behind a heap of teams (yesterday 4, now 3) for the playoffs. Something uncommon may need to be done instead of accepting the status quo.

That is at least how I see it. What say you? Should Rogalski remain as the Devils’ goaltending coach? What do you think has to happen for the Devils to improve their goaltending if they cannot get a new one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Rogalski and even more comments about the goaltending in the comments. Thank you for reading.