Ready or not, the NHL postseason begins on Monday, April 17th, and for the first time in five seasons, the New Jersey Devils will be a part of it.
A few weeks back, I wrote about what the Devils should be looking to accomplish over the final weeks of the regular season. While there has been some minor cause for concern with the Devils performances as they play out the stretch, a lot of my concerns were squashed when the Devils defeated their likely first round opponent 2-1 last Thursday and the manner in which they won that game. I’ve come to terms that the final handful of games in the regular season are basically glorified scrimmages and I’m trying not to make mountains out of molehills over every little thing.
With all of that said, it should be acknowledged that the very first thing I wrote about in that piece was about who should get a Game 1 start between Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid. That wasn’t by accident, it was by design. Vanecek has had some so-so performances mixed in with some brilliant performances over the last few weeks, while Schmid has been the best Devils goaltender this season in terms of save percentage and Goals Saved Above Expected.
The one goaltender I did not give serious consideration to was Mackenzie Blackwood, and again, this wasn’t by accident. It was by design.
You’re familiar with Blackwood’s backstory and career trajectory. You know that after his first two NHL seasons where he showed potential and played very well, he has regressed to an .897 goaltender over the previous three seasons while dealing with a litany of injuries, COVID, and a laundry list of excuses as to why he hasn’t consistently reached the level of play we last saw in 2019-20. You know that he can play well in spurts, but that he’s also subject to juicy rebounds and surrendering more than his share of “he’d like to have that one back” goals against.
Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled when I saw a couple of weeks ago that Schmid was sent back to Utica so the Devils could activate Blackwood off of IR. I’m also well aware of the fact that Blackwood would have to go through waivers to be sent down while the Devils don’t have to do that with the rookie Schmid. I don’t believe Schmid did anything to warrant being sent to Utica, but the Devils didn’t want to try to divvy up playing time and very limited practice time to three different goaltenders over the final couple weeks. Schmid got caught up in the numbers game that happens with young NHL players trying to break in. I don’t entirely agree with how the Devils got here, but the team playing Blackwood down the stretch of the regular season is defensible in the sense that the final few games of the regular season barely matter, Blackwood’s #1 purpose is to play so Vanecek is fresh for the postseason, and Schmid should be playing games somewhere.
I’m ok with this plan. As long as that’s what the plan actually is and is all this plan is.
It’s debatable whether or not Vanecek or Schmid should get a Game 1 start and essentially be viewed as THE Devils goaltender for as long as they’re in the playoffs, with the other netminder being ready at a moment’s notice should things go sideways. Both arguments have merit and you’re not necessarily wrong to prefer the reliable veteran who has done it all year over the rookie with a potentially larger upside, or vice versa. I personally prefer Schmid and gambling on the unknown and upside with him, but I can also understand how “200 Hockey Men” think and how an experienced coach like Lindy Ruff might prefer the steady hand in Vanecek as he is a “veteran who won’t make mistakes and won’t be overwhelmed by the moment”.
I just don’t see a logical argument as to why Blackwood deserves consideration over either goaltender for as much as a backup role. Let alone starting a playoff game.
It might not be fair to judge Blackwood on his performance since he returned from his latest injury, although an .843 save percentage in a very small sample size of seven periods of hockey doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that he’s all of a sudden figured it out. Even if I throw out the previous two seasons and judge him solely on his body of work this season, his track record is spotty at best. It’s not to say that he hasn’t played well at times this season, because he has. He’s also been the same old Blackwood who will give up 4 goals a night and more often than not give the Devils no chance of winning unless the offense bails him out. You’d have better luck predicting the Powerball numbers than you would guessing whether good Mac or bad Mac will show up on any given night.
“Couldn’t you say the same thing about Vanecek or Schmid?”, you might be thinking to yourself, and you could make that argument. But over the course of the season, both players have consistently outplayed Blackwood. The Devils have run the same systems, same defensive coverages, and same personnel all year. It’s not like they change things up and make Blackwood play behind the Utica Comets roster for laughs and giggles or to sabotage him. That’s not how the NHL works night in and night out. It’s true that there have been nights this season where the skaters didn’t do Blackwood any favors because they blew defensive coverages or didn’t play with the right attention to detail, but we could say the same for Vanecek and Schmid as well. The fact that it does happen more frequently with Blackwood in net should reaffirm that he’s simply not as good an option as the other two goaltenders we’re talking about.
“Wouldn’t Schmid be better served being part of a playoff run in Utica?”, you retort. Sure, he could be. It’s easy to forget that Schmid is only 22 years old and is just in his second professional season. He’s still developing. Nico Daws started four of the five Comets playoff games last season with Schmid getting the other, so a playoff run where Schmid is the man in net could be good for him, especially if the alternative is that he is just going to sit on the bench for the Devils in the playoffs while Vanecek starts.
The problem with that line of thinking is that its putting the needs of the NHL team’s AHL affiliate over the immediate needs of the NHL team. I don’t write for AllAboutUtica or AllAboutTheComets. I write for AllAboutTheJersey, a Devils blog. I am a New Jersey Devils fan, first and foremost, and then I am a Utica well-wisher in that I don’t wish the Comets any specific harm. I would like to see the Comets do well but I never want to see that at the expense of the parent club that I have been a fan of for 30 years. It would be one thing if the Devils were out of the race, which is exactly what happened last year as the combination of Blackwood, Jon Gillies, and Andrew Hammond finished out the Devils season while Schmid and Daws played in a playoff atmosphere in the Utica. That isn’t the case this year with both the Devils and Comets playoff bound. I understand removing Schmid from Utica’s roster might be a deathblow for any hopes they have of making a run, but I can’t put the needs of the Comets over the needs of the Devils.
“But Jared, aren’t you fretting a bit much over what is just the backup goaltender? If Vanecek gets hurt, they’ll have Schmid on the roster the next game.” That is true. But it’s also my job to fret about such things. We’re not talking about a December regular season game where its not the end of the world if you drop a game or you don’t have it one night. We’re talking about the playoffs, where every game is a must-win. We’re talking about where if Vanecek doesn’t have it one night and Ruff has to utilize the early hook, can the backup come in cold off the bench, give the Devils a chance to come back and win that same game? Such a performance may turn out to be the difference as to whether or not the Devils win a series or if they’re watching the rest of the playoffs from their couch. So again, I ask why would I think Blackwood is better suited to perform in this spot than Vanecek or Schmid?
I get circumstances change due to injury and poor performance. Most teams don’t get lucky like the Rangers did last year where they can face backups and third-string goaltenders en route to a Conference Final appearance. That doesn’t mean the Devils should make things any easier on their opponents by boxing themselves into a position where Mackenzie Blackwood might be called upon to keep a game, a series, or a season alive. In the past, the Devils have had the luxury of time to let Blackwood “play through it” and get into a rhythm where he can restore that confidence that he could still be the Devils franchise goaltender of the future. They won’t have that in two weeks where every game, every period, and every shift is critical. They can’t afford to screw around when every game is a must win and the margin for error is microscopic. The best players need to play.
I’m not trying to pick on Blackwood, but at some point, on-ice results have to matter. They have to count for something. The bottom line is that for three seasons now, the results have not been there for Blackwood and there is no reason to believe that is going to change in two weeks. The definition of insanity isn’t literally doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, but it doesn’t make it any less crazy to continue doubling down on a losing bet. For these reasons, Mackenzie Blackwood should not factor into the Devils plans in the playoffs.
It’s very well possible that Schmid backing up Vanecek and Blackwood being available in a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario might indeed be the plan for the playoffs. Maybe that was always the plan all along. Roster limits won’t be a thing and teams typically keep extra players around the big club in the playoffs just in case. With two weeks to go, I wouldn’t expect Lindy Ruff to tip his hand one way or the other what the Devils plans in net are. It’s possible that this has been their line of thinking and this is much ado about nothing. But its also possible that that’s not the case, and that possibility scares me.
You’ve heard enough from me though, so now, I’d like to hear from you. Do you agree with my premise that the Devils top two goaltenders for the playoffs needs to be Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid, with Mackenzie Blackwood a distant third? Do you think Blackwood is fine as the backup and Schmid is better off playing playoff games in the AHL? Do you have any confidence in Blackwood’s ability to perform if he were to get into a playoff game? Please feel free to leave a comment below, and thanks for reading.