Goaltending has been a significant concern for the New Jersey Devils for the last few seasons, and those doubts haven’t been erased to start 2019-20. They have the second-worst save percentage (SV%) in the league, with the Los Angeles Kings being the only team trailing them. But it isn’t all doom and gloom for the Devils’ goaltending, and that’s thanks to 22-year-old netminder, Mackenzie Blackwood.
Blackwood, who made his NHL debut last season and finished with a .918 SV%, got off to a rocky start to 2019-20. But things have been coming together for him over the last month. He’s responsible for all five of the Devils’ wins and has taken the reigns as the team’s no. 1 option in net. That should give them some confidence, especially as Cory Schneider continues to struggle.
Blackwood Picking up Where He Left Off
Blackwood burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere last season, and quickly caught plenty of people’s attention. His first win came at the TD Garden against the Boston Bruins, where he stopped 40 of 42 shots. His next two starts resulted in shutouts of both the Carolina Hurricanes and Vancouver Canucks, where he stopped a combined 62 shots on goal.
It wasn’t before long that Blackwood was dubbed the Devils’ goalie of the future, and his play throughout 2018-19 gave you a reason to believe he could live up to those expectations. He finished with a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 5.21, ranked 20th of goalies with at least 250 minutes played. His expected goals against (xGA) of 55.71 was also right on par with the 55 actuals goal he allowed.
That gave the Devils reason to be optimistic about their goaltending to start the new season, but Blackwood got off to a slow start. Part of that is because the Devils called upon him a bit earlier than anticipated. He took over in the third period of the team’s regular-season opener after Schneider left with cramps. He then had to make a start 24 hours later, where he gave up seven goals to the Buffalo Sabres in a loss.
Blackwood began to look more like he did last season in a 3-2 defeat to the Edmonton Oilers on Oct. 10. Since then, he has a .918 SV% to go along with a 5-2-1 record, as well as one shutout against the Canucks on Oct. 19. And his underlying statistics are pretty encouraging — he has a five-on-five SV% of .923, ranking him ahead of Tuukka Rask, Henrik Lundqvist, and Marc-Andre Fleury (min. 250 minutes played).
Related: Devils’ Top Line Needs Hughes
Blackwood has also impressed on the penalty kill — he has a .902 SV%, ranking him ahead of Rask and Carey Price. And he’s given up four goals on 41 shots, which is just about level with his xGA of 3.6. The Devils’ penalty kill got off to a terrible start this season, partly because of bad goaltending, so Blackwood’s play down a man is a positive development.
Devils Still Need Schneider
Even though Blackwood has taken hold of the starter’s job, the Devils need Schneider to turn it around. It’s rare to see a goalie play 70-plus games nowadays, so Schneider will be called upon to give Blackwood some rest. But he’s going to have to be much better than he’s been so far, as he has a .852 SV% through six starts.
Schneider’s underlying statistics at five-on-five don’t paint a pretty picture, either. His GSAA of minus-7.20 is third-worst in the league, with only Sergei Bobrovsky and Martin Jones trailing him (min. 250 minutes played). His SV% of .867 is worst among goalies with the same amount of minutes logged, and he’s given up 19 goals compared to his xGA of 10.45.
If this seems like familiar territory, it’s because the Devils went through this with Schneider to start last season, too. He was 0-5-1 through his first eight games played and had an SV% of .862, almost identical to his current stats. With that said, circumstances were a bit different last season, as Schneider was working his way back from offseason hip surgery.
One would think Schneider is due for some positive regression and puck luck. But that’s not a given for a goalie who’s 33 years old and has been in decline for a few seasons. If his numbers don’t improve, the Devils acquired Louis Domingue to serve as their third option in net. He had a .910 SV% in 38 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning before the trade, so he’ll be able to help if called up to the NHL.
Related: Devils’ Lineup Lacking Continuity
It’s also worth noting that, while he’s no longer the goalie he used to be, Schneider’s also not this bad. Over the last three seasons, he has a .906 SV%, which is just a bit below league average. That’s not ideal, given he’s making $6 million per year. But, at this point, he’s not going back to having a .920 SV%. And with the way Blackwood is playing, the Devils would take a just below league-average Schneider backing him up because that’s much better than what he’s giving them now.
Blackwood Provides the Best Chance to Win
The Devils’ best chance to win games is going to come with Blackwood getting the majority of the starts, at least for the foreseeable future. At 5-2-1 over his last eight starts, that comes out to a 112-point pace over 82 games. It’s unlikely he continues winning at that rate, but even his overall record for the season (5-3-3) comes out to a 97-point pace over 82 games.
The Devils are trying to claw their way into a playoff spot after a bad start, so having a goaltender who wins at a 97-point pace will help. And until Blackwood shows otherwise, or the inevitable ups and downs of an 82-game season cause him to cool off, head coach John Hynes has no choice but to ride the hot hand.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick