One of the most persistent rumors of the New Jersey Devils’ offseason has been whether or not they will trade for 30-year old goaltender Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets. Despite the Devils going 52-22-8 with only 226 goals allowed — the ninth fewest in the NHL — many people have thrown Hellebuyck’s name out there as a means of improving the Devils’ goaltending situation. In abstract, the idea is tempting. But does it make sense, given the Devils’ roster and cap situations? Is trading for Hellebuyck a surefire way to maximize the potential of the current Devils? Today, I am going to dive into why I think Tom Fitzgerald has made the right decision by (as of now) trusting his returning duo in Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid.
Why Akira Schmid is Reason Enough Not to Get Hellebuyck
The Devils’ Swiss goaltender turned 23 in May, making him one of the youngest goalies in the league and the youngest to have played in a playoff game in 2023. Of the five U25 goalies to play two or more full games in the playoffs, Akira Schmid was tied for the highest save percentage, but faced far more shots than Filip Gustavsson, who also had a .921 save percentage.
- Akira Schmid (22): 9 GP/8 GS (460 minutes), 4-4, .921 SV% (211 of 229), 2.35 GAA, 2 shutouts
- Filip Gustavsson (24): 5 GS (309 minutes), 2-3, .921 SV% (139 of 151), 2.33 GAA, 0 shutouts
- Joseph Woll (24): 4 GP/2 GS (198 minutes), 1-2, .915 SV% (86 of 94), 2.43 GAA, 0 shutouts
- Jake Oettinger (24): 9 GS (1078 minutes), 10-9, .895 SV% (470 of 525), 3.06 GAA, 1 shutout
- Stuart Skinner (24): 12 GS (619 minutes), 5-6, .883 SV% (287 of 325), 3.68 GAA, 0 shutouts
In the same playoffs, Connor Hellebuyck had an .886 save percentage and a 3.44 goals against average — his worst playoff performance of his career by a wide margin — against the eventual Stanley Cup winning Vegas Golden Knights. Hellebuyck was better in goal for Winnipeg than Vanecek was for the Devils, but Schmid’s performance should not be discounted because of the team’s disappointing second round performance.
Considering how young Akira Schmid is and how he has already shown he can handle himself in big minutes, it would be foolish to add a top-dog goalie like Connor Hellebuyck, who has led the league in games played four times in his eight-year career. Of the last four NHL seasons to be played to 82 games, Hellebuyck has played 60 or more games each time. The last time he played fewer than 60 games in a non-shortened season was 2016-17, when he played 56 games at 23 years old.
Schmid already has playoff experience and still has room to improve despite sporting a .922 save percentage in his 26 combined regular season and playoff games. In the playoffs, he suffered from inconsistency, as he completely shut down the Rangers and followed that up by contributing to the Game 1 and 2 blowouts in Raleigh. He did, however, turn it around with a .922 save percentage in his final two appearances (totaling 94:02 played). Facing elimination in Game 5, Schmid stopped nine more shots than Frederik Andersen but finally folded in overtime to Jesper Fast on the Carolina power play.
So what’s the takeaway here? Akira Schmid came in hot against the Rangers. Then, after falling back pretty hard in Round 2, he was ultimately able to pull himself back together after watching from the bench, going out fighting at the end. If he’s capable of doing that at 22 years old against a very good hockey team, I think it would hold him back too much to get a guy that would be a lock to play 100% of any playoff games.
Trading for Hellebuyck Now Would Mean Losing Vanecek (And More)
With Vitek Vanecek only having a $3.4 million cap hit, the Devils currently have the luxury of having less than $4.5 million tied up in their goalies (excluding the remaining buyout year of Cory Schneider). With Connor Hellebuyck making over $6 million, the only way a pre-season trade would work would be swapping Vanecek for Hellebuyck and having Winnipeg retain part of Hellebuyck’s salary. This would surely drive the price for him even higher. This is a problem if Winnipeg was already asking about players like Dawson Mercer.
While Akira Schmid deserves the chance to show his second season was not a fluke, Vanecek is still a serviceable goaltender. If he can replicate his regular season performance from last season and bring more of that ability into the playoffs, Vanecek will still be useful to the Devils. If the season goes well for the Devils’ goaltending duo, then the Devils will again be able to keep the total cap hit down at a normally costly position. On the other hand, if the Devils committed to Hellebuyck, it would be just about impossible to imagine the return of a guy like Tyler Toffoli, who is a UFA in 2024. By letting Vanecek and Schmid ride, the great depth the Devils have is preserved.
There’s Always the Deadline...
This is not to say the Devils should completely write off a goalie trade this season. However, if they make one, they need some things to go right in terms of Winnipeg playing below their last year’s level, and they also need things to go wrong in terms of Vanecek and/or Schmid not playing to expectations. But to make such a deal happen, they would need to find an intermediate trade partner to eat additional salary. This type of trade is becoming more common in the NHL, but I would not expect it to happen before a season. Rather, being a third team in for cap compliance is the type of move that teams make when they don’t view themselves as contenders.
But my hope is that Akira Schmid shows everyone that he is indeed the goalie of the future, and that shelling out $6+ million long-term for Hellebuyck is, at this point, unnecessary.
What do you think of the Hellebuyck trade debate? Do you think Tom Fitzgerald has (apparently) made the right move by not going for the Winnipeg goalie? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.