Vitek Vanecek has been worse than you think. Some of you, the People Who Matter, may argue: no, Vanecek has been as bad as I thought. Fine. After literally having a puck squeak through him for an absolutely deflating goal allowed to Connor Zary in the second period against Calgary yesterday, I cannot blame you. However, this goes beyond just one of multiple moments of unfocused, unremarkably, and/or plain unacceptable goaltending play by Vitek Vanecek.
A bit of background beyond me getting mad at the most recent thing about the 2023-24 New Jersey Devils (wholly justified, mind you). A couple of days ago, My Favorite Reader asked me about the New Jersey Devils goaltenders. The question was whether they were any good last season. I said they were but this season they were much worse when it came to making saves. I explained that goaltending is subject to variation and Vanecek’s and Schmid’s numbers dropped like a stone. My Favorite Reader asked me a very good question: is their drop something you normally see? Or is it something not normal? It is such a good question that I intend to answer it here.
The short answer is: This is not normal for the Devils goaltenders within the organization. And how I know that shows that Vanecek has been worse than you think.
Season over Season Save Percentage
The way I am answering the question is by looking at the season-over-season change in save percentage for a goaltender. The primary job of a goalie is stop pucks and so overall save percentage is going to be a stat I will use to look at that. That was what I was referring to when answering My Favorite Reader’s initial question. Including special teams and overtime situations is valuable because from the goalie’s perspective, the job is to stop the puck regardless of situation. Additionally, by using overall save percentage, I have a lot more potential data to go through for comparison purposes. It is also easy to understand. If it is positive, then we know the goalie stopped a higher percentage of pucks. If it is negative, then he did not.
In this season so far, the New Jersey Devils have used three goaltenders: Vitek Vanecek, Akira Schmid, and Nico Daws. Here are their basic stat lines:
- Vanecek, 31 Games Played (GP), 88.7 Sv% (Save Percentage) - Last season: 52 GP, 91.1 Sv% - Season over Season Difference in Sv%: -2.4%
- Schmid, 15 GP, 89.3 Sv% - Last season: 18 GP, 92.2% Sv% - Season over Season Difference in Sv%: -2.9%
- Daws, 8 GP, 89.5 Sv% - Last season: Entirely in Utica so his last NHL season was in 2021-22 with 25 GP and a 89.3 Sv%.
While neither goaltender has played a lot of games in this season so far, we are at a point with Vanecek where one game is not going to have a huge impact on his overall save percentage. If a miracle occurred and Vanecek put up a 30-save shutout over Calgary, his overall save percentage would go up by just 0.2%. Even with 4 goals allowed out of 29 shots last night, his save percentage dropped by approximately 0.1%. As more games are played, the less impact each game will have good or bad by Vanecek. If we want Vanecek to get to an overall save percentage of, say, 90%, then he needs to have a run of good to great performances. Fat chance that happens given how he has been this season.
Furthermore, we have to make judgments on the data we have and not the data we wish we have. The reality is that compared with last season, Vanecek has performed much worse in this season so far. As has been Schmid, who is in Utica in part because of that. This is why there has been much discussion, demand, and desire for the Devils to do something - anything - to improve their goaltending.
The question was whether this is a normal thing that we see with goalies? I do not think it is - at least within the past near two decades of Devils hockey. To confirm this, I looked at all of the goaltenders who played at least 32 games - Daws’ total with the Devils - with the New Jersey Devils in the salary cap era. That is from 2005-06 to current. This left me with 9 goalies: Vanecek, Schmid, Daws, Mackenzie Blackwood, Scott Clemmensen, Keith Kinkaid, Cory Schneider, Johan Hedberg, and Martin Brodeur. I then looked at their save percentages in their careers and calculated their season-over-season save percentage change in the NHL. Between all nine, I have 54 individual seasons where there was a season-over-season difference from 2005-06 to current. Here is what I found:
- Out of all 54 seasons, 31 saw a negative change in save percentage from season to season.
- Out of those 31, 15 were by -1% or more. Only one of those 15 seasons resulted in an otherwise really good save percentage: Schneider going from a 93.7% in 33 games with Vancouver in 2011-12 to a 92.7% in 30 games with Vancouver in the lockout-shortened 2013 season. Even then, no one would complain about a goalie posting a 92.7%. The other 14 seasons yielded save percentages of 90.8% (Schneider in 2016-17 with New Jersey in 60 games) or fewer.
- Of the 15 with a season-over-season difference of -1%, only seven were by 2% or more. This includes the current seasons of Vanecek and Schmid.
- In a more positive development, there were only 10 seasons where a goalie saw his save percentage go up by at least 1% season-over-season. Most of those were a result of not playing many games in both seasons, such as Akira Schmid’s second time in the NHL or two Keith Kinkaid’s last four seasons wherein he did not make 10 appearances in either of them. But it did include Hedberg’s busiest season in 2009-10 (47 games, 91.5% with Atlanta, up from 88.6% in 33 games); Brodeur’s second season in the cap era in 2006-07 (92.2% in 78 games, up from 91.1% in 73 games); Kinkaid’s third NHL season in 2016-17 (91.6% in 26 games up from 90.4% in 23 games); and Clemmensen’s last season as a Panther (89.6% in 17 games in 2013-14, up from 87.4% in 19 games in the lockout-shortened 2013).
The Seven Worst Drops in Season over Season Save Percentage on the Devils Since 2005-06
Ultimately, with the 54 seasons, 30 of the season-over-season changes in save percentage ended up being within a percentage in either direction. A goalie having a drop in save percentage by 2% or more appears to be significant. Again, there were only seven times that happened. Two of that is in this season with Schmid and Vanecek. The Devils did something with Schmid; he was
exiled demoted to Utica. The team keeps on trucking with Vanecek. What about the other five times it happened? Well, the situations are not good for Vanecek in context. Here is an explanation for all five in chronological order.
- Clemmensen in 2007-08: He played all of 3 games for Toronto and got absolutely hammered with an 83.9% save percentage in those appearances. This followed six appearances where Clemmensen posted an 88.9% with New Jersey. Not great but a whole lot better than his short time as a Maple Leaf. The Devils brought him back and Clemmensen surprisingly did very well with 40 games played in 2008-09, which was also known as the season where Brodeur suffered a massive injury. His save percentage in 2008-09 jumped to 91.7% for an improvement of 7.8%.
- Clemmensen in the lockout shortened 2013 season: Clemmensen was a Panther and Florida used three goalies that season: a young Jakob Markstrom with a then 35-year old Clemmensen and a 36-year old Jose Theodore. Like Hedberg, the shortened season was not kind to his performances as he posted an 87.4% save percentage in 19 games. Being older also did not help. And injuries required him to play. Clemmensen would bounce back - kind of, an 89.6% is an improvement but still not good - as one of the five goalies used in Florida in 2013-14.
- Hedberg in the lockout shortened 2013 season: Hedberg’s final season as a Devil and as a NHL goalie saw him as the clear backup to Brodeur. In 19 games, he posted an 88.3% save percentage - a big 3.5% drop from his respectable 91.8% in 27 games in 2011-12. What happened? One: A shortened season may mean he struggled to get ready. Or to recover from any games that sunk that save percentage. Two: Hedberg was 39 going on 40 in 2013; it is likely Father Time decided his time in the NHL was up. And it really was - Hedberg retired after that season.
- Clemmensen in 2014-15: But it would be over for the Parrothead in the season after that. Clemmensen was the third-stringer behind Schneider and Kinkaid. He had to play in 3 games and he, well, was not good with 46 saves on 54 shots for an 85.2%. A drop of 4.4% from his last season in Florida. With just three games and being 37, it was it for Clemmensen as a NHL goalie. He would hang it up then too.
- Kinkaid in 2018-19: Kinkaid was well liked for being hot in the second half of the 2017-18 season that helped the Devils make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. In the following season, Kinkaid was just not good. After posting an 91.3% in 41 games in 2017-18, he posted an 89.1% in 41 games in the following season. A drop of 2.2%. Schneider may have been given a lot of criticism but he posted a better save percentage in that season even with his performances not being what they used to be. GM Ray Shero decided it was enough and traded Kinkaid to Columbus in February 2019 for a fifth round pick in 2022. That pick became Petr Hauser, by the way. (As an aside: 89.1% for Vanecek would be an improvement for him.)
There are some common threads among all five of these instances in addition to the current seasons of Vanecek and Schmid. These five were not #1 goalies when this happened, only Kinkaid in 2018-19 could be argued as a #1A goalie but he absolutely lost that job in 2018-19. Further, most of these teams were mediocre to bad teams. Not that you could fault Clemmensen for either, but the Maple Leafs did not make the playoffs in 2007-08 and the Devils did not make it in 2014-15. Nor did the Panthers in 2013, where Clemmensen did play more of a role. The Devils also did not make the playoffs with Hedberg as a #2 goalie in 2013 or Kinkaid as a #1A goalie in 2018-19. There was also an age factor with respect to this happening to Clemmensen - who saw this twice post 35 years old - and Hedberg, who was pushing 40.
The bigger factor, I think, is success bias. It is a big reason why goaltender evaluation is so difficult. When a skater is in a slump, you may just have to play it out. With a goalie, who already does not play every game despite the best intentions of Martin Brodeur, a slump can mean a quick trip to the bench. And it makes sense from a team perspective. Someone struggling to stop shots and giving up more goals than they should likely leads to losses. You need wins. So goalies are changed. And if you are already a backup goaltender or someone deeper on the depth chart, then a bad performance or two could be it. It is what happened to Clemmensen in Toronto and in his final spell in New Jersey, which would explain why he played so few games. It is also happening now to Schmid, who was sent to Utica once the organization felt comfortable with giving Nico Daws a chance.
It can stink in some situations that a goalie only gets a shot at redemption if the team has no choice but to play the goalie or if someone in the organization - a coach, a GM, an executive, someone - supports the goalie getting some more chances. But, again, the job is to stop pucks and if that job is not done, then there is not going to be much sympathy for a goalie getting demoted, benched, or given few games to prove they can do the job. That also means that a couple of bad games to start a season or on a call up can just derail what could be a promising season for a goalie. And also hinder something like a season-over-season save percentage difference.
Anyway: Enough context. Let me get to Vanecek.
Vanecek Really Has Been Worse Than You Think
Again, it is really easy to write this now as it is after a hideous performance by Vanecek against Calgary. A game where Vanecek got beat on a shot off his arm at the left post, Vanecek let a squeaker through for a period-killing goal against, and Vanecek letting up a fat rebound that helped Calgary take a then-commanding two goal lead. It is really easy to write that Vanecek stinks real bad right now. Mostly because it is true. However, to say that he is worse than you may think, you have to compare him to last season. Again, that’s 2.4% worse by overall save percentage. That is a drop that is uncommon within the Devils organization with few exceptions.
Such a drop cannot be solely chalked up to variation and not getting the right bounces on reads. A few extra GAs? Sure. Not this many, though. Sure, he has been let down by the guys in front of him plenty of times (no thanks to the Swarm Defense). And bad games do happen, like last night’s. But watch those clips of the Flames game that I linked in the last paragraph. This is his 31st game of the season and he is letting up those kind of goals. And his game against Colorado earlier this week, something I would call a good one from him, still had a lapses in focus. Like this one, which was followed up by another goal within a minute later. Vanecek literally was good for 59 minutes and the one minute he was not almost cost the Devils that game. Those are some of the reasons why his save percentage dropped like a stone this season. And unlike a lot of the other seasons in this set of data, it has been really obvious to anyone who has paid attention to the Devils this season. Even if you did not, the number is that low and that much less than what it was last season.
Vanecek’s current season-over-season save percentage difference of -2.4% is the sixth worst seen by any goalie who has been a part of the Devils for at least 32 games since the salary cap was put in place. The only goalies who have seen a worse difference have been were the currently-demoted Schmid, a career #2 guy in Clemmensen, and a 39-year old Hedberg.
This also means that Vanecek’s current season has seen a worse drop in save percentage than any of the individual seasons by Martin Brodeur. And that was a goalie many of the People Who Matter had to admit eventually - and I was stubborn then, I will admit it - that he was not good enough anymore past 2012. Brodeur’s 2013, 2013-14 and even his 7 games as a Blue have been better than Vitek Vanecek’s current season.
This also means that Vanecek’s current season has seen a worse drop in save percentage than any of the individual seasons by Cory Schneider. Hip issues plus a bad team saw the Devils not getting the maximum value of Schneider’s talents. When it seemed like he was struggling to make reads in the net, guessing on shots, and having difficulty in reactions, many wanted him to go. Whether it was for Keith Kinkaid, Mackenzie Blackwood, or someone else. And yet all but one of Schneider’s seasons as a Devil was better than Vanecek’s current season. His final season of an 88.7% save percentage over 13 games in 2019-20 matches Vanecek’s current save percentage.
This also means Vanecek’s current season has seen a worse drop in save percentage than any of the individual seasons by Mackenzie Blackwood. This man had ankle issues, other injuries, a refusal to take a shot, and saw his job taken away by Vanecek and Schmid last season. Blackwood’s career started at a 91.8% save percentage over 23 games in 2018-19 and it has been downhill since. Yet, none of those season-over-season save percentage differences were lower than -1.3%. And Blackwood’s overall save percentage has remained above 89% - even now on a really terrible San Jose team. That is correct: Blackwood has been outplaying Vanecek this season.
This also means that Vanecek’s current season has not been as bad or has seen a decline as much as any of Keith Kinkaid’s season, although the drop of 2.2% in 2018-19 was close. And that was a goalie shipped out for a draft pick that was just 13-14 years old at the time.
This also means that Vanecek’s current season has been worse than Hedberg’s two pre-lockout seasons as a Devil. And that includes the time where he let in a goal off a dump-in in what would be a 0-1 loss to Minnesota.
The goalies who were deemed not good enough and needed to go were, at their lowest point as Devils, still doing at least the same or better than Vanecek is doing this season. Oh, and Schmid and Daws still have better save percentages than Vanecek this season. Albeit not by much but better.
Last season, whatever Vanecek’s flaws were, they were not nearly as costly as they are in this season. Again: He posted a respectable 91.1% overall save percentage in 52 games last season. It was an improvement by 0.3% over his prior season in Washington. A goalie on New Jersey putting up a 91.1% overall save percentage right now would be great. But Vanecek is -2.4% worse than that now. It really is worse than just an overall save percentage in the high 88% range. Vanecek was better than this just last year! Much better! Without any real injury (as far as we know) or age or change in coaches or something to explain how Vanecek went from above-average to a trainwreck in the crease within a year.
And So I Am Frustrated
Vanecek has been so bad that I am frustrated with the seeming lack of action about him by the New Jersey Devils.
This is not Vanecek just having a few bad games similar to Schmid, where his numbers got sunk from them. This is a guy who is wavering to good with some bad moments to “how is this guy getting games?” It literally has been this week so far for him in fact. A goalie having a drop in save percentage like this should be a cause for concern, meetings, and all kinds of ideas to try to reverse it or stem the tide since it is costing the Devils games. For example, I would even go as far as to make him change his leg pads since the current ones are not helping his rebounds any. Maybe the Devils are doing more work behind the scenes than I think. OK. I can buy that. The problem is that it has not worked at all. The season-over-season save percentage difference now sits at -2.4% after all. It was -2.3% before last night’s game.
Yet, Lindy Ruff continues to feed him starts because the guys in front of him have outscored his mistakes enough times this season. That’s how he is 17-9-2, by the way. Odd that Schmid isn’t good enough to stay in New Jersey but a guy with a worse save percentage than him and giving up hideous goals is. Also odd that Vanecek does not get pulled for “sparks.” He has started 28 of his 31 games and has been relieved just twice this season by Schmid. It took until last night’s game for Ruff to even suggest that Vanecek was not doing his job. Someone is not watching the team very well.
Yet, goaltender coach Dave Rogalski has not done anything that has led to any actual improvement on the ice - which is what the Devils really need. I wrote about his issues with coaching up goalies back in December. The drop in save percentages for both Vanecek and Schmid are more marks against his work with the goalies. He has been unable to stop the bleeding of goals from Vanecek (and Schmid too, so watch out Daws). Given that his job as goaltending coach is tied to how the goalies played, I remain confused as to how he remains. You do not see this in, say, the NFL. Coordinators, assistants, and other specialist coaches get fired mid-season related to poor performances. Maybe it is not common in the NHL, but Ottawa changed their goalie coach earlier this season. It is not unheard of. Yet, Rogalski remains. Doing what? Not much good it appears.
Yet, the Devils coaching staff and management seem to be fine with the status quo in the crease even as it burns them in periods and games now five months into the season. I will note that Vanecek did not get pulled in that Calgary game except for a requisite empty-netter against. I understand it may be hard and costly to get a goalie in a trade. I may prefer Tom Fitzgerald trying to do something hard over watching the 2023-24 Devils season sink to miss the playoffs just one season after a 52-win campaign. Should Fitzgerald do something now or by March 8, it may be too late.
Of course, moving Vanecek would be a challenge. The last time a goalie in this organization that got more games than a clear #2 guy that had a season-over-season drop in save percentage, the goalie was shipped off for a late draft pick four years after the trade was made. Vanecek may somehow get even less than that right now.
Still, something has to be done for the sake of the team. Some teams would just risk Vanecek to waivers, send him to Utica to get his mind right, and roll with Schmid-Daws on the basis that they have been statistically better and cannot be any worse than Vanecek this season. Some teams would just have Vanecek back-up for a few weeks. But the Devils continue to choose Vanecek in games they really, really, really cannot afford to lose now. When you keep in mind where he was last season, then you know that option is even worse than originally thought.
I will admit I am not totally satisfied with my dataset just limited to goalies who have played with the Devils. That was more of a function of time constraint and wanting to prove a point about Vanecek than anything else. I am willing and eager to hear your thoughts about whether this is something worth pursuing with goalies on other teams. Maybe the Devils are an exception and other organizations see their netminders regularly post worse save percentages by 2% or more season-over-season. Or maybe it is really true that a season-over-season save percentage difference of -2% or worse is significant and cause for alarm. It will take me time, but I would like your thoughts as to whether this is worth revisiting.
As for Vanecek, well, I doubt I will get much push back on the notion that he has been real bad this season and it is worse than it seems when you consider past Devils goalies and his first season in New Jersey. But what would you do with him at this point? Is he salvageable? Nevermind the season, could his NHL career be done? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Vanecek in the comments. Thank you for reading.