I’ve written here before about my concerns about Vitek Vanecek and whether or not he was the long-term answer tending goal for the New Jersey Devils. I wasn’t convinced he would be the guy to lead the Devils to the promised land. Sure, he’s the only other goalie besides Martin Brodeur in Devils history to hit 30 wins in a season but his past experience in the postseason in Washington and now this season’s playoffs have further cemented my beliefs here.
Vitek made this list also as the 7th biggest disappointment of the postseason. It was ugly all the way around and I can provide my theory as to why I believe that’s the case. In short, I believe Vitek gets in his own head. What makes him lovable and someone to root for is the fact that he’s all effort, all the time. It led to him overplaying pucks, being out of position and scrambling in a way that’s not conducive to playoff success (whereas it can help you more during the regular season). That’s my belief on Vitek and I’m not sure that unless he gets a stellar sports psychologist to help him, it’s going to change much moving forward.
On the other hand. Akira Schmid has shown that he could possibly be the man for the Devils moving forward. Yes, Schmid’s playoffs were up and down with him being pulled in one game against the Rangers and two against the Canes. But one could argue, especially against the Canes, that the Devils were absolutely atrocious both of those games. When Akira got back in in Game 5, he was probably the best Devils player on the ice. And he just turned 23 this week. Schmid was essentially the opposite of Vitek. He relies on smaller, quiet movements and excellent positioning which helps him a ton with a 6’5” frame. I believe his approach to the game leads to great results and makes him the most likely internal candidate for being the starting goalie in the playoffs moving forward. It feels like the Devils might’ve found their answer with drafting and development.
And yet, the rumors persist that the team might look elsewhere this offseason. Larry Brooks of the NY Post believes the Devils could pursue Connor Hellebuyck, him being one of three Vezina Trophy finalists this season. Brooks isn’t alone as The Athletic mentioned Buffalo and New Jersey specifically as teams that would be all-in on the American goalie should he become available.
I think you can boil down this conversation to certainty. With the Devils ascending in nearly every aspect of their franchise, from the defense to the forwards, the one question mark that still looms large is the goalie. And that’s a pretty big one to have in hockey. In the series with the Rangers, almost all the “experts” predicted the Rangers would come out on top. They gave two reasons for this belief. 1. Experience. The Rangers went on a long-ish run last year and most folks felt like it would serve them well against the fresh-faced noobies from Jersey. 2. Igor Shesterkin was flat-out better than whatever the Devils would have in net. I would say that the first part only showed up early in the series because when the Devils got trunk-slammed in the first two games in Newark, they reacted like veterans of the postseason with unbelievable efforts at MSG. Igor though, was in fact, stellar throughout the entire series and still sits second on Moneypuck in terms of goals saved above expected, even though he only played seven games compared to all the goalies who made it through the second round.
Certainty in goal is something that many would point to with regards to our Devils. Schmid might’ve been the best goalie for the Devils in the playoffs, but a 23-year-old kid who has only had a taste of the NHL and was in the USHL just two years ago, is far from a sure thing heading into 2023-2024. Even if most Devils fans believe he is THE guy. And that’s where the rumors come in.
You’ll often hear the phrase, “goaltending is voodoo” and I believe it’s because predicting which goalies will be stellar year over year has become as unpredictable as New England weather. Jacob Markstrom was one of the very best goalies in 2021-2022. Markstrom fell upon hard times in 2022-2023 and most Flames fans would tell you that his fall from the top was the main reason Calgary didn’t make the playoffs. He went from a .922 save percentage to an .892 save percentage. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to me if Markstrom is back around .920 again this season simply because just when you think a goalie might be done, he rises like a phoenix to prove you really wrong.
The Canucks’ Thatcher Demko was thought to be a darkhorse by many for the Vezina Trophy coming into 2022-2023. After all, he posted back-to-back .915 save percentages the two years prior. Yet when the puck dropped in Vancouver, Demko struggled mightily and then eventually got an injury that kept him out long-term. He came back towards the end of the season and played well enough to raise his season save percentage over .900, but it wasn’t there for so much of the year and the season was already lost for the Canucks.
The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, probably someone most would consider as sure a thing as any in the league, didn’t have a particularly great postseason. Maybe he’s wearing down from so much hockey over the past several seasons? Perhaps getting eliminated early this year will bring back a refocused Vasy next year?
On the other hand, few saw the Bruins’ Linus Ullmark coming out of nowhere to post a .938 save percentage in 2022-2023. His save percentage the year earlier was fantastic at .917, but that kind of jump was unforeseen. Most people thought that his partner, Jeremy Swayman, would be the main goalie in Beantown. Yet Ullmark will likely take home his first Vezina.
What’s the point of all this? Outside of maybe four or five goalies, the goaltending position is pretty much unpredictable. Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers, Ilya Sorokin of the Islanders, Juuse Saros of the Predators and Vasilevskiy are the main four in the NHL. Four predictable players in an unpredictable position. Jake Oettinger might also be there soon. He’s in the middle of a postseason run. And one that is likely number five is the aforementioned Connor Hellebuyck. His worst season over the past five years was a .910 save percentage during the Paul Maurice quits-on-the-team season.
Teams like Buffalo, the LA Kings, Pittsburgh and Ottawa are likely all going to be teams chasing goaltending this summer. Finding the answer in goal has the feel of playing pin the tail on the goalie after being blindfolded and spun around repeatedly and drinking about a pint of vodka. I’m just not sure that you can fully predict what will happen. Rumors are that the Penguins could chase Pittsburgh native John Gibson, who many believe is done, but it also wouldn’t surprise me to see him have a bounce-back season being freed from the atrocious Anaheim defense in front of him. Saros might shake loose from Nashville if the Predators believe that their super goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov is ready and can grow with a rebuilding team.
The asking price for Hellebuyck will be incredibly high, given that he’s one of the four as close to sure thing goalies in the NHL. A sure thing in an uncertain position? Sign me up, right? Maybe not. Hellebuyck may have had a very consistent year but he’s also turning 30 years old today (happy birthday, Connor!). And goalies who have played 445 games who have hit the other side of 30 are most definitely not a sure thing. Not to mention that his cap hit is $6,166,666 (nice number for someone whose name begins with Hell and would fit nicely on a Devils team) for 2023-2024 and then he heads into unrestricted free agency after the coming season. How much would certainty in an uncertain position cost? $9 million per season? $10 million? So you’re paying a goalie north of 30 for his 30s and it’ll eat up a significant portion of your cap. While I’ve been talking about Hellebuyck in Devils colors for a bit now, I’m not sure I do that.
I hope this isn’t the case, especially with the cap likely going up progressively after this offseason. If it does go this way, suddenly the #NJDevils would have a “Hell” of a trade chip to pursue a need. https://t.co/xSOOeunc2s pic.twitter.com/m5F9ea9AqD— Tyler Bleszinski (@papiblez) May 12, 2023
Truthfully, I don’t know what the best answer is here. Thankfully, I won’t be the one making the decision. But Tom Fitzgerald even referenced the discussion in his end of the year availability. He basically said that Vitek had a stellar regular season and Schmid showed the team something in the playoffs that he could be something special (though said the team left Vitek out to dry in the first two games against the Rangers). But he basically said that they haven’t even discussed that aspect of the team as a group yet but he expects himself, Martin Brodeur, goalie coach Dave Rogalski and Lindy Ruff to sit down soon and discuss the goaltending plan moving forward. I firmly believe that the best solution is for Akira Schmid to be what the Devils think he can be because a goalie on an entry level deal combined with Vitek Vanecek’s $3.4 million AAV cap hit, the Devils are suddenly looking at a VERY affordable goaltending duo that allows the team to fill their other needs. As an aside, Fitzgerald did mention what Mackenzie Blackwood can give you when he’s healthy and gets on a roll. Problem is that he just hasn’t done that for a long, long time, And MacBlack seems like he doesn’t really think he will be back, either:
Ultimately, we will get the message of how much the team believes in Akira Schmid and Vitek Vanecek soon enough. I think Mackenzie Blackwood will likely be dealt this offseason, largely due to the uncertainty he’s helped create in the Devils crease over the past two years.
Also, this doesn’t even cover the unrestricted free agent goalies this upcoming offseason. The two big names I would think would be Canes’ goalie Frederik Andersen (you know the one who bounced the Devils from the second round?) and Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry. While both have shown to be great goalies at times, they also suffer from repeatedly injuries almost as frequently as Blackwood has. I’m not touching either one of them even if the upside is high. Joonas Korpisalo, Cam Talbot, Semyon Varlamov, Laurent Brossoit and Adin Hill are all also UFAs who are interesting names. And yet, I’m not sure any of them gives you a better option than Schmid.
If I had to guess, I feel like Martin Brodeur and company believe in Schmid the Kid. He led them past the Rangers and showed in Game 5 against the Canes that he is more than capable of bouncing back. Plus the temptation of having the cap flexibility of not spending much for a key position might just be too much. It also depends on if the cost of acquisition for someone like Hellebuyck is exorbitant. A team like Buffalo, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh might be a lot more willing to part with more picks to fill that obvious hole.
One thing is for sure, the stakes will be higher for this Devils team in 2023-2024. They will not sneak up on anyone and the expectations will likely have the team as one of the top five or six favorites for the Cup next year. And they will need a goalie that will match what’s in front of them. Especially if the team decides to let defensemen Ryan Graves and Damon Severson walk in free agency. The steady defense in front of the goalie might be a bit more shaky with both Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec replacing seasoned veterans. Hughes and Nemec also like to pinch and take chances in the offensive zone, so it’s likely that whomever is the main man for the Devils next year might see more high danger chances.
As for me, I’m a Schmid believer. And further to that, I’m also a believer that Nico Daws also isn’t far behind becoming a part of the New Jersey crease soon enough. As much as acquiring Hellebuyck would have the feeling of the Avalanche acquiring Patrick Roy back in 1995 to help making Colorado a big favorite for the Cup (spoiler alert, they won it in 1996), I think in a salary cap world, decisions have to be made in favor of prudence rather than exorbitance. The spotlight will shine brighter on Devils goaltending more than ever.
What do you think? Should the Devils pursue one of the big names like Hellebuyck? Maybe Saros if he shakes free from a rebuilding Predators club? Or do you run it back with Vitek and Schmid and hope that Schmid is what we all think he could be?