One simmering storyline over the past few weeks for the Devils, and really the only one that Tom Fitzgerald and staff haven’t delivered a definitive answer on, has been the situation between the pipes. The Devils came out of the 2021-22 season that was a catastrophe at the goaltending position and made a significant add in the form of Vitek Vanecek. This was not the first attempt at trying to bring in outside help to bolster the team’s outlook at goalie in recent years, but—thanks to injuries and impromptu retirements—it is certainly the first recent attempt that you could say worked generally as intended.
The Devils headed into 2022-23 with a tandem of Vanecek and their erstwhile goalie of the future, Mackenzie Blackwood. As ever, things maybe didn’t work out exactly as planned on that front, as Blackwood again battled injuries and inconsistency throughout the season, but Vanecek stepped up, putting up a .911 sv% in 52 appearances. Vanecek was very solid for the Devils, delivering an occasionally uneven but overall very solid performance as the Devils’ primary starter. Among the 77 goalies with 600+ minutes played in the NHL last season, Vanecek ended up 23rd, putting him solidly in the top third of goalies that got significant minutes last season in overall save percentage.
With Blackwood missing significant time, the Devils also had their young goalie prospect Akira Schmid step up as well. Schmid was good enough to land 5th in all-situations save percentage (again among goalies with 600+ minutes). Schmid shook off a fairly disastrous cup of coffee he had in the NHL in 2021-22 to be something of a revelation for the Devils in 2022-23. Meanwhile, in between his injuries, Blackwood was as uneven as ever, putting up an .893 save percentage in his starts, finishing 58th/77 goalies in the league. The postseason laid bare the reality that Blackwood had probably reached the end of his days in New Jersey, with Vanecek getting the net in game one and Schmid being the guy to step in when Vitek struggled.
Speaking of the postseason, the Devils’ playoff run teed up a few narratives for the goalies going into the 2023-24 season. First, Vanecek’s substantial struggles in the postseason injected some uncertainty into his Devils future after what had been a very nice regular season for him. And second, the playoffs also operated as something of a coming out party for the young Schmid, as he helped rescue the Devils in their matchup with the Rangers, outdueling Igor Shesterkin on multiple occasions and shutting down the Rangers’ scorers. Schmid could not replicate his dominance in the Carolina series, but his performance in high-pressure situations coupled with his really strong regular season thrust him into the conversation for the permanent starter’s net in New Jersey.
The Devils did indeed move on from Blackwood this offseason, trading him to San Jose for a late round pick, leaving Vanecek and Schmid as the current de facto tandem. The burning question in response has obviously been whether the Devils intend to move into the 2023-24 season with that setup. From a strictly statistical standpoint, it’s certainly not a bad spot to be in. Schmid and Vanecek were both in the NHL’s top 25 in overall save percentage last year and, digging a bit further into the data, they each saved more goals than expected based on the shots they saw.
Ultimately, the concern on Vanecek and Schmid doesn’t really come down to the raw numbers, it’s really more in the context. Both had strong campaigns in 2022-23 with Vanecek ably handling a starters workload and Schmid putting up very good numbers as a 22-year-old. Vitek did seem to run out of steam a bit late in the campaign, though, as shown in his substantial playoff struggles. Schmid, meanwhile, played very well but had a light workload and still has limited NHL experience. Given those considerations, it can feel a bit like the Devils are rolling the dice at goaltender if they keep things as-is, with how polished the rest of the roster is starting to look. They did pick up a bit of depth with their signing of Erik Kallgren as a third option, but he looks like little more than AHL support while the Devils other main prospect, Nico Daws, recovers from an injury and then an insurance policy against complete disaster if the Devils have significant NHL injury troubles.
The Devils have been largely mum on the goalie situation, but smoke continues to hover around names like Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson in Winnipeg and Anaheim, respectively, with other names like Jusse Saros and Linus Ullmark getting a bit of trade chatter as well. Hellebuyck is about as good of a goalie as anyone could hope to acquire in the current NHL but given the Devils salary outlook relative to the cap and also Hellebuyck’s age (30), the likelihood of the Devils acquiring him is closely tied to whether they would be interested in a pure rental acquisition. Hellebuyck would potentially give the Devils top-tier goaltending in 2023-24 and then presumably they would sort out the future in, well, future offseasons. I could certainly get on board with this scenario but, as with any trade, the question is the price. Jared went into the particulars of this and a number of different goalie trade targets last week, so I won’t relitigate all of that here, but it’s clear that the Devils have not closed the door on upgrading their situation, particularly if a recent comment from Frank Seravalli about the Devils wanting Schmid to be mostly in the AHL next season proves to be true.
In the end, the Devils could obviously benefit greatly from adding a name like Hellebuyck or Saros to their roster. They are in a position to really pounce on a landscape that is beginning to look a bit shakier in the Eastern Conference than recent years and have a goaltending situation that is obviously not a slam dunk at the moment. That said, I think I vary from my esteemed colleague Jared slightly on the magnitude of the Devils’ need in net. Vanecek was capital-R Rough in the playoffs and Schmid is still a relatively unknown quantity, but both were pretty good overall in 2022-23, and the price tag on many of the guys actually worth pursuing could prove prohibitive.
Having an elite goalie is obviously a luxury that can make things easier, but outside of a rental, it’s going to be very tough for the Devils to end up with one in place long term absent a correct long-term bet on someone like Akira Schmid becoming The Guy. Fitzgerald has seemingly pulled a ton of the right levers this offseason so far, so I trust his judgement on what additions the team needs to make, but I think the Devils have leverage in the goalie department insofar as they have a likely adequate goaltending situation as it stands. Maybe that’s because I tend to be a believer in Akira Schmid and the way he has developed over the years, but I don’t see why he can’t be the guy. I also think Vanecek is a perfectly cromulent guy to ride shotgun and carry a big chunk of the regular season workload. Is Vanecek too big of a risk to carry as the postseason option in leiu of a continued breakout from Schmid? Maybe, but he also has a grand total of seven career playoff starts. Plenty of guys, including goalies, were nobodies or bigtime loser chokers until they weren’t.
So, in my humble opinion, the Devils can be aggressive for the right targets, but should also not feel obligated to make a bad deal to fix a goaltending situation that is arguably fine as-is and perhaps is even good if Schmid continues his trend. There is naturally risk in standing pat, but every action or non-action carries risk, and there’s no reason they couldn’t also swing a deal at the deadline in-season if Schmid proves to not be ready for regular NHL starts and they find that an upgrade in net is desirable.