What a difference a week makes.
A week ago, the Devils were the talk of the hockey world. Akira Schmid had just put the finishing touches on a first-round series win over the New York Rangers. The NHL postseason bracket had fallen about as well as it possibly could’ve if you were hoping the Devils would go on a deep run. Some of us may have even prematurely declared that the Devils had everything they needed to win the Stanley Cup this year. Of course, its easy to feel good making a definitive statement like that when Akira Schmid posts a .951 and 2 shutouts, winning 4 of 5 starts to win a playoff series. It appeared the Devils did indeed have a goalie.
Seven days later though, the Devils have been pushed to the brink and it appears they have a lot more work to do. And it all starts in net.
You’re well aware of how the Carolina series has unfolded through the first four games, but here’s a quick refresher. The aforementioned Schmid struggled in Games 1 and 2 to the tune of an .806 save percentage and got yanked early twice for Vitek Vanecek, who had been the Devils #1 goaltender throughout the regular season. Vanecek has struggled with an .825 save percentage for the postseason before getting pulled early in a pivotal Game 4 where the Devils had a chance to even the series. Instead of tying up the series and turning it into a Best-of-Three, the Devils got blown out for the sixth time this postseason.
It’s nowhere near good enough. And the Devils are now 60 minutes away from elimination as a result.
Of course, it would be unfair to pin everything from last night, as well as the other two Carolina wins this series, solely on the goaltending. John laid out everything else the Devils did wrong in Game 4 and you can read that here. The puck management was atrocious to the tune of 19 Devils turnovers to 1 for the Hurricanes, and that was just through the first two periods when the game was still “within reach”. Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid weren’t the ones who were continually careless with the puck against an aggressive team like Carolina. They weren’t the ones who routinely missed assignments in the defensive zone. It’s not the goalie’s fault that Luke Hughes went for a poorly-timed shift change, or that caroms off of the sticks of Damon Severson and Jonas Siegenthaler in the defensive zone went right to Martin Necas before winding up in the back of the net. It also didn’t help matters by the time Brent Burns made it 5-1 Carolina and Vanecek was mercifully pulled, the Devils skaters looked like they’d rather be anywhere else but on the ice in a playoff game.
It’s not entirely Vanecek’s fault, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It’s a results-driven industry and the results just aren’t there. The goalie has to make the saves. He failed to do so.
It also didn’t help matters last night that Lindy Ruff made the wrong decision to go back to Vanecek in the first place, as he did nothing in Game 3 other than clear the low bar of not being worse than Frederik Andersen and Pyotr Kochetkov in Sunday’s win. It was an easy first guess to say Schmid should’ve gotten the start despite his struggles in Games 1 and 2.
I get that the Devils lack a whole lot of quality options at the moment and Ruff’s hands are tied. Mackenzie Blackwood, who the Devils correctly decided isn’t an option, has been banished to the press box and should get as much consideration to start Game 5 as me. Nico Daws hasn’t played an NHL game all season and just got recalled after Utica’s season ended a few days ago. Jonathan Bernier, who also hasn’t played all year and might never play again, isn’t in any condition to bail the Devils out of this mess. Schmid was the best of two very questionable options for the Devils. He’s also the bigger upside play at a time where the Devils need to swing for the fences, similarly to what they did when they inserted Luke Hughes into the lineup for Game 3.
Unfortunately, Ruff chose incorrectly, and when you’re already down 2-1 in the series, the margin of error is miniscule. Ruff went with a “winning lineup” in Game 4 because you can’t possibly change the lineup after a win in Game 3, process be damned. Vanecek, who was not good in Game 3, didn’t get the saves to keep them in Game 4. Ruff’s patented “too little, too late” timeout down 4-1 to “settle the team down” predictably didn’t work either as they gave up another goal moments later and finally pulled Vanecek.
The goaltending simply hasn’t been good enough in this series. And the Devils season is on the verge of ending because of it.
That hasn’t always been the case this season. Vanecek’s postseason struggles in a small sample size doesn’t erase all the good he did over the course of the season. Schmid was even better in limited action during the year and if nothing else, he’ll always have that Rangers series. Even Blackwood, who had moments that were few and far between this year, at least had those moments. We have seen that the Devils team, with goaltending that could be described anywhere from good to average, can be a really good team. This is a far cry from what we saw a year ago when Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond were routinely giving the Devils no chance. The organizational decision to run it back with Blackwood and trading for Vanecek was defensible considering the low bar of “playing meaningful games late in the year”. That was the standard a year ago.
The standard has since been raised.
Coming off of a franchise-record 112 point season and a playoff series win, the bar needs to be higher now. Much higher. Blackwood giving up 4 goals a start can no longer be tolerated. Vanecek getting destroyed in every playoff start he makes is not acceptable. Schmid hasn’t been good against Carolina. This level of play in net is not good enough for a team that should have Stanley Cup aspirations moving forward, and continuing to waste time with sub-optimal options is only wasting years of this window that can’t afford to be wasted. Ask Connor McDavid if he’s happy the Oilers have wasted some of his best years with Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. We’re now at the point where the Devils don’t trust Blackwood enough to dress him in playoff games and they can’t realistically turn to Vanecek again this postseason with how poorly he’s played.
The Devils need to upgrade in net if they want to be serious about competing for championships. They need to be in the goaltender business. Again. As much at it sucks that they need to do it once again, they need to do it.
I feel for Tom Fitzgerald because its not easy to find a goaltender. The position is fickle by nature, there are only so many Igor Shesterkins or Ilya Sorokins to go around, and Fitzgerald still doesn’t have one. He’s addressed that hole on the roster every season he’s been the GM of this team. Before this season, the list of options even available to him was likely limited due to where the Devils were in their timeline and quality options saying “thanks, but no thanks”. It’s a tight rope for Fitzgerald to navigate and I don’t envy him.
Yet, it must be done for the Devils to take that next step.
We’ve seen enough from Blackwood to know he’s not the answer, and if this is what we’re going to get from Vanecek in the most important games of the season, that’s not going to cut it either. Nobody cares that Vanecek went 33-11-4 with a .911 during the regular season when he’s at an .825 and -7.6 goals saved above expected in the playoffs.
We’ll have plenty of time this summer to talk about potential options in net and Akira Schmid should be in the Devils plans in some capacity, but they need to explore external options and leave no stone unturned. Connor Hellebuyck said on Jets breakup day that he has no interest in a rebuild. As you may recall from when I wrote about this last year, I have plenty of interest in Connor Hellebuyck, even though the cost will be prohibitive. Juuse Saros probably isn’t available quite yet but has two years remaining on a team-friendly deal. The Predators do have former first round pick Yaroslav Askarov waiting in the wings at AHL Milwaukee and aggressively sold at the trade deadline this season, so it might just be a matter of time there before they do make Saros available. Frederik Andersen looked very vulnerable last night but he has plenty of big game experience and will be a UFA. It remains to be seen how Boston handles their impending cap crunch but they have two very good goaltenders in Linus Ullmark (who has a NMC) and Jeremy Swayman. And while its unlikely they leave their current teams, Ilya Sorokin is entering a walk year and Igor Shesterkin is two years away from UFA. There will be options at some point, and these will be quality options.
The Devils need to be at the front of the line if and when these options become available. The stakes are too high at this point to continue with second-rate options. That’s not to say the Devils don’t have other needs that must be addressed over the summer, and this isn’t dismissive of all of the things Carolina has done right this series to get out to a 3-1 lead that they deserve. But the margin for error in any series becomes a lot bigger when you can trust the man between the pipes and everyone knows that your goaltender can potentially steal a series. The Rangers didn’t play very well against the Devils but they nearly stole the series because Shesterkin was great. The Devils beat the Rangers in part because Schmid was better. The Devils haven’t been good enough to beat Carolina regardless of who has been in net, but it’d be a heck of a lot more competitive if someone.....anyone.....could just get a save.
That’s how I see things. Perhaps you see them differently. Please feel free to leave a comment below, and as always, thanks for reading.