Entering the season, the New Jersey Devils were viewed as having a young team with a potent offense and a strong defense. They added Ondrej Palat, John Marino, and Brendan Smith in the offseason, but there were doubts in regard to goaltending. Last year, the Devils started seven different goalies, by far the most in the NHL. They tried to remedy this situation by trading for former Washington Capitals netminder Vitek Vanecek, but questions still remained. In the Devils’ first three preseason games, Vanecek and Blackwood both impressed, and what was once the team’s biggest weakness could end up being one of the team’s strengths.
Blackwood’s Strong Return
It’s no secret that the 2022-23 season is a big one for Mackenzie Blackwood. An injury-riddled 2021-22 was uninspiring, and his status with the Devils beyond this year is unclear. He made his preseason debut on Sept. 26 against the Montreal Canadiens in the team’s first game. He played half the game and saved 15 of 16 shots before getting replaced by Nico Daws. However, it was Friday night’s game against the New York Rangers that saw the old Blackwood make his return.
The 2015 second-round pick played the entire game, facing 37 shots from the rival Rangers. Although the Devils lost 2-1, the performance by Blackwood was one of the highlights of the night. His strongest play came early on, stopping several Rangers chances. More importantly, he looked comfortable in net, a sight that Devils fans love to see after the way last season ended.
In regards to his performance, Blackwood stressed the importance of playing in the preseason. “They’re important to me, just getting my timing and reads back,” he said. “Every game it feels a little better, things are coming along well. I’m happy with where I’m progressing.” While Devils fans want to see Blackwood back as soon as possible, it’s even more crucial that he’s as healthy as can be. If Friday’s game is any indication, his return could be sooner than we think.
Vanecek’s Impressive Devils Debut
While Vitek Vanecek did not see as much action as Blackwood, he still made the most of his opportunity. There’s a real possibility that Devils fans see as much of Vanecek as they do Blackwood this season, so while the fans may want to see “Big Mac” return to full strength, it’s also crucial that Vanecek has a strong season. After a trade with the Capitals brought him to New Jersey, the third-year goalie is expected to take a step forward and help a younger Devils team reach the postseason, where he has experience. If his two preseason appearances are a sign of things to come, he’ll fit in just fine with his new team.
In the team’s preseason game against the New York Islanders on Sept. 27, the native of the Czechia saved 14 of the 15 shots he saw in the team’s 4-1 victory. The first shot he faced in the black and red got by him, but he rebounded and didn’t let the puck cross the goal line from there on out. He only played in two periods before Akira Schmid entered in relief. Two days later, Vanecek played in all three periods of the Devils’ 5-2 win over the Rangers. He made 15 saves in the win, marking two preseason victories for him in two attempts.
Vanecek is used to playing in a tandem unit and is expected to play the same role with the Devils. He’s been consistent over the course of his career and has a record of 41 wins, 22 losses, and 10 overtime losses. With the time he’s spent in the victory column, 2022-23 could be a big year for Vanecek. He’s only started 75 games, but this season could see his most action yet.
The Devils’ goaltending still has its fair share of unknowns heading into the season. Can Blackwood truly come back to full strength? How will Vanecek fit in with the new system? Could Jonathan Bernier return at some point this season? These are all questions that will take some time to answer, but if the preseason is to be believed, there is no need to be as concerned between the pipes entering 2022-23 compared to prior seasons.
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Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.