The Devils were done in by a number of things in the 2021-22 season, chief among them being a veritable catastrophe at the goaltender position. The Devils played seven different netminders and saw them all perform somewhere between “sub-mediocre” and “putrid”, taking a flawed team that probably should have been competitive more often than it was, and dragging it to the bottom-five of the league standings. It didn’t really matter who the Devils trotted out, the results were pretty much bad across the board and heading into the summer of 2022, it was perhaps the most glaring issue to be addressed in the offseason.
To that end, the Devils brought in Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals to shore up the position. Vanecek’s time in Washington was a bit uneven but he graded out as a pretty average goalie in the aggregate, which would qualify as a godsend to the 2021-22 version of New Jersey Devils. In 2022-23, he’s been the stabilizing force the Devils have so sorely needed. He has reeled off some truly excellent stretches of play in November and January, and while he’s had other portions of the schedule where he’s been less solid, the body of work has helped put the Devils in the position they now sit, tied with Carolina in points for first in the Metropolitan Division.
Vanecek’s up and down stretches are pretty close to what one might have expected from him at the season’s outset, though the highs have likely been higher than what most would have predicted, and the 28-7-3 record (albeit powered by a potent offense to an extent) is far beyond what anyone could have hoped for. As it stands, in part because of the inconsistency and inability to remain on the ice for his original tandem-mate, Mackenzie Blackwood, Vanecek has emerged as the de facto starter for the Devils, taking about 60% of the team’s starts overall. Given his difficulty staying on the ice and general inconsistency, Vanecek has a pretty substantial leg up on Blackwood in any conversations about the game one starter in the playoffs, even if Blackwood has been a bit better than his raw save percentage indicates.
It has to be said at this point, though, that Blackwood is no longer Vanecek’s only competition for that starter spot in the playoffs. No, the Devils young Swiss netminder, Akira Schmid, increasingly looks like a player the Devils should consider giving the keys to the net when they playoffs do roll around. Schmid has been largely excellent in his 14 appearances for the Devils, far outpacing his New Jersey peers in save percentage and putting up the best share of quality starts among the group as well. The baseline goaltending stats for each of the three Devils goalies this season look like this (via Hockey Reference):
- Vitek Vanecek: 42 GP (39 starts) | .910 sv% | 2.48 GAA | .641 Quality Start Percentage | 4.7 GSAA (goals saved above average)
- Mackenzie Blackwood: 17 GP (16 starts) | .900 sv% | 3.04 GAA | .625 QS% | -2.3 GSAA
- Akira Schmid: 14 GP (11 starts) | .927 sv% | 1.91 GAA | .727 QS% | 7.1 GSAA
So, Schmid, in the basic stats, has a big leg up on his peers so far, though his performance has been in the smallest of all the samples. This has been a huge turnaround from Schmid’s initial season, where he looked almost shellshocked by his introduction to the NHL in his few appearances. Schmid has been largely great at an assortment of other levels, but he struggled mightily in his first taste of the NHL. A year later, he looks confident and tough to beat in an NHL net. Among goalies with 10+ starts, Schmid is actually third in the entire league in raw save percentage.
Sometimes, though, things are a bit more complex than the top line stats indicate. For this purpose, some people have developed public-facing models to try and quantify overall goaltending performance, controlled for the quality of chances they have faced. Blackwood, for instance, has been present for some of the Devils’ worst defensive efforts, so a model like the one from Hockey Viz tries to capture and account for that fact. Below are the goals saved versus expected for each of the Devils’ goalies this season:
The first thing to note is that the performances of Blackwood and Vanecek this season, at least by this metric, have been closer than the standard stats (and the records) might suggest. The other thing to note though, is that Schmid’s performance has indeed been superior this season, controlled for the quality of shots that he has faced. This may not capture the so-called “timely saves,” which Vanecek has seemingly excelled at this season, but it does give a more complete picture of each goalie’s performance. Taken as a whole, the data seems to indicate that the Devils have gotten quality goaltending across the board, even from the at-times maligned Blackwood.
The question for the coaching staff now is how to weigh sample size and experience against the performance level of the goaltenders to come up with the best option for Devils in the playoffs. Given that Schmid has been the Devils’ statistically best goaltender, along with the fact that nobody in this group has much of a playoff track record, means that I think that there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the staff should be thinking about Schmid for that game one starter role. Blackwood, despite this being his fifth NHL season, has never appeared in a playoff game. Vanecek has three playoff appearances total in his prior two seasons with the Caps, and a save percentage is .855 in that sample. So while Schmid is a rookie with only 20 NHL appearances at this point, he’s up against two options with negligible experience in the postseason.
Realistically, the Devils probably approach the postseason much like they have the regular season, with the goaltender role being somewhat “by committee.” Given that no one in the group has much of a track record, I do think they should keep their options open, though, and seriously consider putting Schmid in the net when the playoffs begin. Until then, the Devils should be getting in a healthy rotation between Vanecek and Schmid to have a good idea of each player’s form when mid-April arrives. And if Schmid continues to put up superior numbers to his peers, the Devils shouldn’t be afraid to put him in that spot when the time comes.