As the Devils opened the playoffs this week, it’s not really a great time to be reflective of the historic nature of the regular season for the Devils. Most of us, myself included, are obsessing over every little thing in the playoff series against the Rangers. Everything from when and if Luke Hughes sees the ice in the series (my bet is he doesn’t get in unless the team goes down 2-0 or 3-0 and mostly just to give him an experience of playoff atmosphere for the future which I can get behind) to where Miles Wood is playing to who the goalie should be...
Wait, what? Yes, this has become a real discussion amongst Devils fans on Twitter. They seriously wanted to start Akira Schmid in game two after Vitek Vanecek wasn’t at his best in game one. Yeah the guy who stabilized a position that the Devils have basically been looking to stabilize since Martin Brodeur left. Corey Schneider looked like he would be the heir apparent, but he was a victim of some pretty bad teams and then the injury bug derailed his career. Enter The Vitek.
He became the first Devils goalie other than the one named Brodeur to win 30 games in a season. The advanced statistics seemed to say that Vitek wasn’t exactly spectacular this season with a mere 5.1 goals saved above expected according to Moneypuck. That was good for 26th in the NHL (though better if you strip out some of the small sample size guys like Joseph Woll and Laurent Broissoit). The thing about this Devils team is they don’t even really need a Brodeur. They are good enough at protecting against high danger chances that they really only needed someone of Vitek’s caliber to be good. It was a firm #justthegoalie argument from last season in advanced analytics and this season kind of proved that theory and belief to be true. Though the team was also marked better defensively this season as well, so it was likely some combination of both.
You want to know who was higher than Vitek on that Moneypuck goalie list? Akira Schmid. Yes, in 19 games, he stopped 8.2 goals above expected. Now that number can fluctuate wildly at times. A goalie allows a lot more goals than he should’ve, he plummets down the list. A goalie faces 64 shots as Predators goalie Juuse Saros did one game against the Hurricanes earlier in the year, he can climb right to the top.
At the same time, I think the biggest question with the Devils roster moving forward this year might remain at the goaltending position. Schmid most definitely seems like he could be something special. Many are rushing to anoint him as the guy. Some were calling for Schmid to start in game two. I don’t think the Devils do that unless Vitek is poor again Thursday (I’m writing this sooner). But if the series starts to go sideways, meaning the Rangers go up 2-0 or more likely 3-0, I think you start to see the Devils kids enter the chat. That means Luke Hughes, Akira Schmid get thrown into the fire to see if they can change the Devils fortunes while also getting them some valuable experience towards this long window that has just opened for the team.
My concern with Vitek is something that Kevin Woodley brought up on Wednesday during an appearance on SiriusXM NHL Network radio. He’s a goaltending expert who tracks all things with the men between the pipes. He’s smart, he’s informed and he tends to get a lot of things right with regards to the masked men.
Kevin Woodley was just on @SiriusXMNHL He's a goalie expert. Says that he felt like Vitek was nervous last night because his movements were very exaggerated and was overplaying some shots. He also said Shesterkin is most vulnerable on cycle plays, low to high. #NJDevils— Tyler Bleszinski (@papiblez) April 19, 2023
This was his reaction to Vitek after the first game against the Rangers. It’s funny because I noticed it too. He seemed to almost be oversliding his position at times and more scrambly than he usually is (and he’s already fairly scrambly). But often times, this gets him the moniker of a “battler” and someone who won’t give up on plays. That was also Martin Brodeur, who often made acrobatic saves when being out of position, but Marty was also so technically sound when he needed to be. The best part about Marty was often how unpredictable he was in a position that Patrick Roy and company turned into a ridiculously rigid and predictable position. Granted, Marty wasn’t as unpredictable as Dominik Hasek was, but he had that flair for making a last second dive that would result in a spectacular save.
I’m not willing to write off The Vitek completely yet, especially after what Devils fans have suffered through over the past few seasons. He’s extremely likable, funny, works harder than anyone else on the team and appears like Ted Lasso’s Danny Rojas on goalie skates. Some day I picture him uttering the phrase after an especially big Devils win, “Hockey is life!” I truly WANT The Vitek to be The Man in Jersey. I want him to be the backbone for the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup. But there’s a nagging part of my brain, perhaps induced by consuming too much hockey media who still neg Vitek every chance they get, who also hasn’t fully come around to believing The Vitek is The Answer.
Almost every preview I read or heard referred to how the Rangers had the better goalie by far and that would be the difference in this series. They’d say that the Devils might even have more talent on the roster, but that when push came to shove, the goaltending would be the difference. It was one step from wearing that “We have Igor, you don’t” tee. Yet here’s the hard truth. Part of me agrees with it. But I don’t know if it’s because I just haven’t seen it yet from Vitek or that’s the truth. As someone who first came to truly fall in love with the Devils during their 1988 run (I actually followed them since 86, but the 88 run cemented my love) and loved Sean Burke, I’ve always had an intense fascination with goaltending.
What I’ve loved this year about Akira Schmid and why I believe he could be the answer moving forward is his calm and cool demeanor in the net. The Devils have somehow created a goalie-friendly environment with Lindy Ruff’s system. It might’ve been the small tweaks brought in by defense coach Ryan McGill or Ruff might’ve tweaked the system itself, but it typically doesn’t allow a ton of high danger chances. Part of it is the system is so aggressive in the offensive zone that the team tends to run downhill at the opponents all game. The defense has done a very good job of balancing aggression with positioning in their own zone now. But Schmid the Kid (given the nature of bank robbery in the wild west, this just HAS to be his nickname, Sidney Crosby be damned) just is so sound positionally and so big (6’5”) that he works so well with this team in front of him. His movements aren’t exaggerated, except when they need to be. Remember this?
Remember when he faced down all those legendary Washington shooters in a shootout? Evgeny Kuznetsov and his slow motion approach. TJ Oshie, USA go-to choice and Niklas Backstrom. The Kid was just stellar. Now I’m actually an Oakland A’s fan too, or at least was until yesterday, so I’m very familiar with small sample size. There’s a chance that 19 games of Schmid wasn’t enough to prove he will go from The Kid to being The Man for Jersey. But I’m thoroughly optimistic that rolling with Schmid and Vanecek into the next season might be the long-term answer where The Vitek would probably wind up being the backup. That being said, this team should be good enough to win multiple Cups. It’s rare for a team to be this stacked, this young in a salary capped NHL world. But here we are, window just barely opened and the third best record in the entire National Hockey League.
I truly believe that goaltending might be the only thing that stands between the team and winning the greatest trophy in all of sports. This series against the Rangers should give the Devils a lot of answers about where that position stands. Can Vitek truly stand up to last year’s Vezina winner and come out on top? If so, then perhaps I’ve been suckered by hockey media into that doubt about our hibachi-loving, adorable goalie that gave us something that no one ever thought he could this year. A franchise-best season. So many open questions here that should be answered in the next week or so. I won’t even tackle the question of goalies they might look to in the future. That’s an offseason question once many of the answers are given.
So what about you? Is The Vitek the answer long-term for this team? Will Schmid the Kid become the Man for Jersey moving forward as Martin Brodeur did during the right time and right place in 1994-1995? Or will that be a question to ask later, once all this madness against the Rangers is behind us?