It’s hard to know when a team hits rock bottom, but sometimes it’s obvious. Wednesday’s 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes might have been it for the New Jersey Devils. With that said, it’s not like they played a flat-out terrible game. They outshot the Coyotes 33-17, and they had a 53-35 shot attempt advantage and an expected goals of 2.18 to the Coyotes’ 1.61 at five-on-five. So why did the Devils lose?
Lack of finishing has been a problem, but what’s really plaguing the Devils is goaltending, specifically when Mackenzie Blackwood starts. After Wednesday’s game, where he only stopped 13 of 17 shots, his save percentage (SV%) has fallen to .894 on the season. His underlying numbers are also at the bottom of the league.
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The Devils have a dilemma on their hands, and there’s not an easy solution. But it’s something general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to address this offseason because the team is having another season done in by goaltending.
Blackwood Negatively Impacting Devils’ Season
There are plenty of factors that go into an NHL team’s success, but goaltending is the one that can elevate a team from being average to elite. The New York Rangers have a good roster, but Igor Shesterkin has saved 20.31 goals above expected (GSAx), the best mark in the league, masking the deficiencies they have at five-on-five. He’s the runaway favorite for the Vezina Trophy, and it’s not particularly close. He’s been that good.
The Devils, on the other hand, are getting the opposite from Blackwood. He’s allowed 11.73 goals above expected, the third-worst mark in the league. Only Joonas Korpisalo (-11.75) and Philip Grubauer (-24.92) have been worse starters this season. It’s hard to win many games when your primary starter is underwater consistently. That’s why the Columbus Blue Jackets, Seattle Kraken and Devils are all in the bottom half of the NHL standings.
But the thing is, Blackwood had gotten off to a strong start to the 2021-22 season. In his first eight games, he was 4-1-2 and had an SV% of .922 along with a GSAx of 1.22. That’s the kind of goaltending that will collect wins for any team. But since then, it’s been a steep drop to the bottom. He has an SV% of .875 in his last 15 games and GSAx of -15.05. That latter number is the worst in the league over that stretch, even worse than Grubauer.
It’s fair to ask, has Blackwood struggled because of the Devils’ defense? They might not be the best defensive team in the league, but they’re also far from the worst. For the season, the Devils have a Corsi-for percentage of 51.11 percent and expected goals percentage of 50.65 at five-on-five, so they’re winning the shot quantity and quality battle more often than not. They’ve allowed 2.48 expected goals per 60 minutes, ranked 19th in the league, close to the middle of the pack when it comes to quality chances allowed.
Since Nov. 30, when Blackwood’s fall off began, the Devils have allowed 2.44 xG per 60 minutes, 14th-best in the league. Their five-on-five SV% during that stretch is 87.47, the worst in the NHL by a relatively comfortable margin. Their SV% at all strengths is 86.69, and only four of those 19 games were ones where Blackwood didn’t start. No team is going to win games with that kind of goaltending.
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And the concern with Blackwood is this is not a bad stretch of games. He had a rough 2020-21, finishing with a .902 SV% and GSAx of -12.62. That was only in 35 games because of the COVID-shortened campaign. But he’s still allowed 24.35 more goals than expected in the last year across 58 games, the second most to Korpisalo.
Devils in a Tough Spot for the Rest of 2021-22
In a perfect world, the Devils would rely on their backup goaltender more often than they are now. Unfortunately, Jonathan Bernier is out for the rest of the season after undergoing hip surgery. Before signing Bernier this offseason, he had a .908 SV% in three seasons with the Detroit Red Wings and was, for the most part, stopping what he was expected to. He’s under contract for next season, so the hope is he returns healthy and can contribute to the Devils what he did for the Red Wings: just above league average goaltending.
With Bernier out for 2021-22, the Devils don’t have many options. Prospects Nico Daws and Akira Schmid have both gotten looks, but it’s clear they need more time in the AHL with the Utica Comets. Daws is having a solid first pro season with the Comets, posting a .917 SV% in 12 games. Schmid has a .944 SV% with the Comets, though he hasn’t played for them since Dec. 8 after spending time in the NHL backing up Blackwood. He recently returned to the Comets and will likely split duties with Daws again.
Because Daws and Schmid’s development is crucial for the long-term picture, it’s unlikely they get closer looks in the NHL again until the end of the season. That leaves Jon Gillies as Blackwood’s backup. Gillies has only made two starts for the Devils since they acquired him from the St. Louis Blues just over a month ago, but he’s been decent in those two starts. His SV% may be .872, but he has a GSAx of 0.05 — in short, he’s stopped what he’s been expected to. With Blackwood struggling as much as he is, it’d be a surprise if he didn’t get more starts moving forward.
There’s no downside in giving Gillies an extended look, but Blackwood will still get his starts since Bernier is out. There just aren’t many other options until the organization feels more comfortable giving Daws and Schmid NHL time. Could a coaching change help mid-season because Lindy Ruff’s system makes life more difficult for goaltenders? The Devils’ defense could be better, but it could also be plenty worse, so maybe not.
Would changing goalie coaches help? Blackwood hasn’t been the same since Roland Melanson left and the Devils replaced him with Dave Rogalski before the 2020-21 season began. Maybe that helps, but it’s rare to see an assistant get replaced mid-season. Without many short-term fixes, the conversation shifts to the long-term, which is a much different discussion when it comes to Blackwood.
Devils Will Have to Make a Decision on Blackwood’s Future
Blackwood’s struggles aren’t just about this season; there are long-term implications. Do Fitzgerald and the Devils’ front office think he’s their goalie of the future? If they’re looking at his play over the last calendar year, the answer is clearly no. If they consider his first two seasons in the league when he had a .916 SV% and that he could get back to that level, then maybe. But that becomes less and less likely if his numbers don’t see significant improvement to end 2021-22.
The conversation will then move to looking at external options. Both Bernier and Blackwood are under contract for next season; Bernier will become an unrestricted free agent in 2023, while Blackwood will become a restricted free agent. If Fitzgerald decides he wants to bring someone in from the outside, he’ll have to move one of them, and it probably won’t be Bernier.
The free-agent class for UFA goalies in 2022 isn’t as strong as the last two years. Jack Campbell, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper and Jaroslav Halak headline the class. Tuukka Rask will be a UFA, but he won’t sign anywhere other than with the Boston Bruins if he decides to continue playing. Fleury is 37 years old and will likely want to head to a Cup contender if he continues playing, so it’s probably safe to rule him out too. And Campbell will likely be too expensive as a UFA.
There are a couple of interesting second-tier UFAs like Ville Husso and Anton Forsberg, who could be cost-effective options for the Devils. Forsberg has a .910 SV% in 14 games for the Ottawa Senators this season and has a career .904 SV% in 70 games. Husso has come out of nowhere for the Blues, posting a .933 SV% in 10 games. If he shows that’s not a fluke, he’ll be an intriguing UFA option in July.
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While none of those names may be inspiring, they’ve been better than Blackwood over the last calendar year. Kuemper has been a league-average goaltender, while Halak is still one of the best 1Bs in the NHL. Would a veteran tandem of Kuemper or Halak and Bernier work for a year or two until Schmid or Daws is ready? It seems like it would if Blackwood doesn’t turn it around soon. There’s the trade route as well, but finding a good goalie that’s available on the trade market is easier said than done.
It’s obvious the Devils still have significant goaltending issues when it comes to Blackwood. He will get his fair share of starts to end the season, but he’s running out of time to prove he’s part of the solution if he hasn’t already. If he doesn’t show significant improvement, Fitzgerald may have no choice but to move on. Because the Devils having their 2022-23 season submarined by goaltending has to be avoided at all costs.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving-Hockey