This is going to sound like an all-time flip flop but I don’t think the New Jersey Devils should be pursuing one of the big goalie names on the market right now. Yes, I know. I’ve been preaching since last summer that they needed to add someone to the roster like Nashville’s Juuse Saros, Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom or Anaheim’s John Gibson. My alternative play was to get someone under-the-radar like Arizona’s Karel Vejmelka, but he has since struggled this year (my working theory is overuse the past few and now he’s likely not playing enough because Connor Ingram has emerged as a clear number one). I truly felt like an upgrade in goal was needed because Vitek Vanecek completely cratered last year and Akira Schmid was so young and hadn’t had enough experience in the AHL that the Devils didn’t know what he was yet.
But I tried to convince myself that Devils GM knew what he was doing and that even if Vitek was still in his own head, Akira might rise to the occasion. As we well know, none of that transpired. Vitek currently sits at 90th out of 91 goalies in the NHL in terms of goals saved above expected, according to Moneypuck. The only goalie worse is Joonas Korpisalo of the Ottawa Senators (rough contract there, Sens - ouch). Akira Schmid, despite being demoted to Utica to work on his game, sits 70th out of 91. And Nico Daws, after a stronger start, sits at 59th.
Now figuring out goaltending is a tough one. There’s a reason they say it’s voodoo. I mean who could’ve predicted that Jonathan Quick would be the best New York Rangers goalie and one of the best in the league this year? I mean Quick’s career had one foot in the proverbial grave last season. Most people, myself included, said that if anything happens to Igor Shesterkin health-wise this year, that team is cooked. But alas, if anything happens to Quick right now, that team might be cooked as Shesterkin has been downright bad for quite a while now.
Regardless, the Devils have a conundrum in net. With Jack Hughes out of the lineup, they can’t outscore their issues any more. Lindy Ruff has a rush-based offense and without one of the best in the entire league at the rush based offense driving the bus, the team has been an even rougher watch than usual. They’re slipped to fifth in the wild card chase, seven points back at the break. They also have a lot of company around them, including the Islanders, Penguins, Capitals and are closer to the Sabres and Canadiens right now in the standings than the Red Wings or Maple Leafs, who occupy the two wild card spots (not in points percentage but actual points).
So to be frank, it looks pretty bleak for our beloved franchise right now. The finger pointing on social media and elsewhere seems to change day in and day out. Because I’ve been exploring the trade market for so long for goalies, one name that repeatedly comes up is Yaroslav Askarov, who hasn’t lost a game since December 17 in the AHL.
Yaroslav Askarov's last AHL loss came on Dec. 17 – he's on a nine-game winning streak.— Steven Ellis (@SEllisHockey) January 31, 2024
The #Preds have a good one.
The Devils could’ve had Askarov, but they chose Alexander Holtz instead. I’m fine with that as Holtz is turning into a good winger before our very eyes.
The Predators snatched Askarov 11th overall so New Jersey couldn’t even select him with their second first round pick (Dawson Mercer). But here’s my issue with acquiring Askarov. Dave Rogalski is still the Devils goaltending coach. He has been for some time now and the case is beginning to grow against him being a good coach. John Fischer wrote a very good piece about it that you should read. Now there’s arguments that none of the goalies who have come through have been exactly high ceiling-types. The obvious exception to that in my humble opinion is Nico Daws, who happened to be the top rated North American goalie prospect the same year Askarov was drafted. Daws was drafted 84th though. He still should’ve been considered a higher end goalie pick. He’s played well at times thus far, really poorly during some other games.
So the playoff outlook is bleak, even more so if Jack Hughes isn’t back playing following the All Star game. Rogalski is still the goalie coach and I don’t have faith in him to properly develop and prepare Askarov. Ruff’s system still exposes average goalies and makes them into poo poo rather than artificially inflating their numbers like some other more defensive systems can.
The question here is: why bother to go out and acquire a top goalie right now during a long-shot season for a Cup? I think the last time a goalie acquired mid-season had a significant impact was maybe Dwayne Roloson for the Edmonton Oilers during the 05-06 season? That was a looooong time ago.
Juuse Saros is in the midst of literally his worst season of his great career. Granted his number dwarf the Devils current group, but still, it’s not great and probably not a great time for Trotz to maximize his value in a trade. And yes, John Gibson is experiencing a career resurgence in Anaheim this year, sitting at 21st in goals saved above expected behind a fairly poor Anaheim defense. Jacob Markstrom has been one of the very best in the NHL this year, almost single-handedly carrying the mediocre Flames roster to playoff contention.
Here’s the thing. Based on the trade for Elias Lindholm yesterday, the price for acquisition right now appears staggering.
TRADE ALERT!— Calgary Flames (@NHLFlames) February 1, 2024
The #Flames have acquired Andrei Kuzmenko, a 2024 first round pick, Hunter Brzustewicz, Joni Jurmo and a conditional 2024 fourth round pick from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Elias Lindholm: https://t.co/aGOGAdiJQ5 pic.twitter.com/8mhmTnRWQx
Especially for a future unrestricted free agent who could walk away to another team this summer. My bet is the Canucks will try to re-sign Lindholm ahead of that, but you simply don’t know what the player is thinking. If he’s this close to grabbing that bag and choosing his own destination, wouldn’t you do it if it was you? Hockey careers are only so long.
How does this relate to the Devils? Pierre LeBrun dropped a little nugget in this article about the potential cost with regards to Saros.
Byfield has been slow in his development, but he has emerged this season with 35 points in 46 games. He’s also a massive human at 6’5” and 225 pounds. Now my general feeling is that Trotz is the one that clearly dropped this message in the media to set his cost publicly. But I might run for the hills and hide if I’m Tom Fitzgerald because it’s likely that someone like Dawson Mercer would simply be a starting point. And do you want to make that kind of decision in a season where the playoffs are increasingly becoming a long shot? My answer is increasingly turned the corner to the word NO.
But does that mean the team should sit still? Also, no. Players need to feel like the team has their back so I still think Fitz should do something. Here’s where I would pivot right now. I would aim for someone like Kaapo Kahkonen. He’s going to be a UFA this summer but his goals saved above expected are in the top 20 this year on an absolutely horrific San Jose Sharks team. Fitz knows Sharks GM Mike Grier well and the Timo Meier deal they struck last year has worked out extremely well for the Sharks thus far. In fact, you could argue legitimately that the Sharks won the deal as of right now because Timo hasn’t really been Timo. So Kahkonen could be a nice and simple add because he shouldn’t cost much more than a fourth round pick or so given his expiring deal. Will he move the needle much? Who knows, it’s goaltending but a guy on an expiring contract coming to a team that wants to make a push? It could work out nicely.
The nicest part about it would be that Kahkonen’s contract expires so you aren’t wedding yourself beyond the rest of the season. He also only costs $2.75 million so if you want to address defense as well, you have plenty of space to do it.
Don’t get me wrong, if you can execute a deal for a Saros or a Markstrom or Gibson, you probably do it, even if they struggle this season adapting to playing behind the run and gun Devils. The play with those guys will be longer-term. I’m just not convinced, given the current landscape of the league and it being a seller’s market, that you won’t get robbed in the process. My bet is someone like Linus Ullmark might shake loose this summer. Prices won’t be as high as mid-season in a year where, in all likelihood, the Devils don’t seem to have it missing their highest priced defenseman all year.
If prices aren’t as insane as they seem as an outsider, go ahead and solve the issue for the long-term now. I’m just not convinced that’s the case.
What do you think? Should the team that’s seven points out with multiple teams to climb over, go all-in? I get that the ownership probably wants them to given the postseason revenue. But still. Longer-term success still has to be the play here. Let me know in the comments! Let’s go Devils!