While the New Jersey Devils have added camp goaltenders, namely Keith Kinkaid, and are also giving some of the guys in the pipeline some time, in reality, we all know who they are going to be going with once the true games come around shortly. After his dynamite postseason performance last year, Akira Schmid, at the very least, cemented his chance to prove that he can be a #1 goaltender in the NHL this year. However, with Vitek Vanecek and his $3.4 million cap hit still here for another 2 seasons, he will not simply be gifted the Devils’ crease moving forward. In fact, even with Vanecek’s poor performance in the postseason, he still put together a decent regular season last year, and you can expect him to also get his share of starts in net as well.
The question, of course, is how this is going to play out. What the Devils have now is realistically what they wanted to have two years ago when they signed Jonathan Bernier in the 2021 offseason. The goal at that time was to have him take a good share of the goalie starts while also helping push Mackenzie Blackwood to become even better so that by the current 2023-24 season, Blackwood could take over and be the guy. Well, that obviously went sideways quickly, and Blackwood is now thankfully on another team, but we have a similar situation once again. With Schmid at only 23 years old, and coming off of some stellar play in the most stressful of situations, the hope is that he will be the guy for a long time. But for the next two years, perhaps he can learn more playing alongside Vitek before fully taking over the crease in two seasons.
This, of course, is the big positive of this situation heading into the season. Barring injury, Schmid will not have to go through what Blackwood did and just get thrown to the wolves for a ton of starts as the guy. Blackwood obviously did not respond to that all that well, and struggled to become a top-of-the-line goalie in this league. Would he have progressed and grown more if he was splitting starts and learning alongside Bernier? It is hard to see that now considering how he has played, but in truth, we will never know. That isn’t to say that Schmid wouldn’t rise to the challenge and succeed in the situation that Blackwood was placed into, but he shouldn’t have to worry about that, and that’s a good thing. He can get his 40 starts this year, get plenty of rest, and spend a lot of time learning how to be the man for a good team alongside Vanecek, who did do well enough in the regular season.
The other positive of the goalie room being as it is will be the ability to keep both guys fresh during the season. Vitek played in 52 games last season and ended the year with a 0.911 save percentage and a +8.66 goals saved above average. Schmid, meanwhile, only played in 18 games during the regular season, as he really did not announce himself to the world until the playoffs and his dynamite performance against the Rangers. So entering the postseason, Vanecek had a ton more wear and tear than Schmid did. This year, if both guys get around 40 starts, both should be quite fresh for any potential playoff run. Of course, teams love to ride just one goaltender for the playoffs, as you play the hot hand, but even if they just made Schmid into the guy at that point, he should be fairly fresh and ready to play after splitting regular season starts as opposed to getting 50-60 starts like Vitek did last year.
The potential downside to this, to play devil’s advocate, is what happens if Schmid struggles in this setting. Vitek isn’t bad and had a good enough regular season, but he was not dominant by any means and was downright terrible in the playoffs. He is a good stopgap guy, but at 27 years old, it might be a stretch to expect him to be any more than the other half of a split net like he is this year. Schmid, however, is the one with potential, the one who this team needs to turn into the guy who can guard the crease all the way to a Stanley Cup. If he struggles in this situation, what happens then? Do they rely more on Vanecek in the short term considering that this is a win-now team? Do they keep rolling out Schmid for every other game more or less and hope he can iron out the issues and not become another Blackwood? The only real negative to this situation is if Schmid struggles, as it creates a real conundrum for this coaching staff.
Assuming that doesn’t happen, however, this is a fairly ideal scenario for the Devils for the next two seasons. If all goes well, unlike what happened with Bernier and Blackwood over the last two years, it could pave the way for the Devils to have a strong presence in the net once again, something they have really not had since Cory Schneider stopped being Cory Schneider. Vitek is a quality guy to have in a platoon, and playing only half of the starts alongside a quality veteran should hopefully give Schmid what he needs to continue to develop into a top-tier goaltender in the NHL.