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Should Fans Be More Worried About the New Jersey Devils Defending or Goaltending Down the Stretch?

With under 20 games to go in the regular season, some of the imperfections in the current New Jersey Devils team have made themselves known. Is one of them more worrisome than the other right now?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at New Jersey Devils Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The New Jersey Devils 4-3 loss on Tuesday to the Toronto Maple Leafs, on paper, doesn’t look all that bad. A one goal game between two of the Top 5 teams in the entire NHL this season on the surface seems like the norm. Once you begin to dig, and watch the footage of some of the goals, however, it becomes more apparent that things could probably have gone differently.

The Devils were their own worst enemies on Tuesday night, as facets of the team that we’ve complained about more frequently in years’ past reared their ugly heads again. Vitek Vanecek did his best impression of a sieve in allowing four goals on just 25 shots. Faulting him alone would be foolish though when you look back at the highlights. Viewing them shows us a collection of the team’s “best hits from the past few seasons: defensive breakdowns led to odd man rushes, missed defensive assignments and one of the team’s negative trademarks, a shorthanded breakaway goal.

The Devils were their own worst enemy against the Leafs, as the above graphic supports. In a game that they win just under 70% of the time in simulations based on the run of play, they managed to come away without even one point, let alone two.

So do we blame Vanecek? Do we blame the defense? Both? I think when you look back at the footage of this game, the defense lays more at fault than Vitek does. When you leave your goalie out to dry numerous times, and leave shooters without coverage, even the best goalies in the world are going to struggle. And by defense, I do want to stress I mean team defense, not just those with that label as their position. Jack Hughes was egregiously at fault on the game tying goal, so we can’t just sit here, blame Damon Severson as a group of people like to do, and pretend the team will be magically better once he’s gone.

The defense hasn’t been perfect, but I think the goaltending slump Vanecek is in is more concerning right now. He’s had periods of time where his play hasn’t looked all that great, and his season totals are starting to get to a level of worry. After appearance #41 on Tuesday, his save percentage is down to a .907; for everyone who has been complaining about Mackenzie Blackwood, his .900 isn’t much worse than Vanecek’s save percentage. Of additional concern is that on the season now, Vitek only sports a goals saved above average of 0.87.

The worry here has to be a slump coming at the wrong time; while the defense playing poorly needs to be fixed, the Devils need a goalie that can bail them out of bad situations. Right now, Vanecek is not that guy. Sure, he probably gets back to his norm in the next few games, and we forget this article was ever written. But what happens if he slumps again during the playoffs? What happens if Blackwood isn’t ready to go by then, or comes back and gets hurt again? Do the Devils stick with Vanecek and hope he gets it together or do they pivot to the rookie Akira Schmid? Either of those last two options doesn’t seem like a foolproof solution, especially when it could cost the team a playoff series.

The end game for the Devils in recent seasons was just to get to a point of being competitive again; well now we’re there and the team has to take the next step to sustained success. In order to do that, the issues with both the defense and the goaltending need to be figured out. Right now, unless Vanecek can regain his consistency, or Blackwood reverts to 2018-19 or 2019-20 Blackwood, the Devils should be concerned about how the players they have in net could be costing them some of their prime years.

Where does your worry with the current Devils team lie; do you think the goaltending is the biggest problem they face? Are the team’s defensive breakdowns more of what has you feeling uneasy as we inch closer to the postseason? Do you think the team will bounce back from the recent lackluster stretch and the concerns are overblown? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!