Devils’ Blackwood Under Pressure in Return From Injury

The New Jersey Devils may have a goalie dilemma on their hands, and it’s probably not the one you thought would emerge this season. Given the past few years, one would’ve been safe assuming the team’s goaltending wasn’t holding up their end of the bargain. That’s not the case, however, as the Devils have gotten above-average netminding so far. 

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Despite recent struggles, Vitek Vanecek has the reigns as the team’s 1A goaltender for now, and while Mackenzie Blackwood is still the 1B, an emerging Akira Schmid has made the battle for that position a toss-up. With Blackwood returning from an MCL sprain this week and set to make his first start in nearly two months tonight, he has plenty to prove that he should remain a part of the team’s goalie rotation moving forward.

Blackwood Has Struggled for a While

There was a time when Blackwood looked like the Devils’ goaltender of the future. His first two seasons in the league showed plenty of promise, even though the Devils were bottom-feeders. In 70 games between the 2018-19 and 2019-20 campaigns, he finished with a .916 save percentage (SV%). He had a quality start percentage of .563, which is a bit above the league average of .530 (per Rob Vollman’s Hockey Abstract via Hockey-Reference). 

A little bit of a deeper dive into Blackwood’s numbers from his first two seasons shows the Devils had something to build around too. He had a five-on-five SV% of .927 and stopped 5.16 goals above expected at that game state. At all strengths, he had allowed 0.97 goals below expected, so he was making the saves he should’ve been making. 

Given those were his age-22 and 23 seasons, it wasn’t wrong to proclaim that the Devils had a potential franchise goaltender on their hands. But as the saying goes with NHL netminders, they are voodoo. There are plenty of circumstances to consider with Blackwood’s dropoff over the last two to three years (a pandemic, injuries, etc.), but it hasn’t been pretty. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Since the start of the COVID-shortened campaign in 2020-21, Blackwood has a .897 SV% across 67 games, including his eight appearances this season. His underlying numbers aren’t pretty, either. He’s allowed 29.78 goals above expected; only Joonas Korpisalo has allowed more since then. And his five-on-five SV% of .907 ranks in the bottom third of the league. 

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The 2020-21 campaign was tough for all involved, but Blackwood particularly struggled after having a rough bout of COVID that put him behind the eight-ball once he returned to the lineup in February. The following season, he dealt with a heel injury that didn’t heal properly (no pun intended). The Devils also overworked him, and his play suffered as a result. The team eventually shut him down in the middle of January, and he wouldn’t return until the final two games of 2021-22.

Schmid’s Emergence Adds a Wrinkle

After acquiring Vanecek from the Washington Capitals in an offseason trade, it was clear what the Devils’ tandem would look like to start 2022-23. Nico Daws had shown flashes the prior season, but more time with the Utica Comets (AHL) was best for his development. The same was true for Schmid, who struggled in his NHL appearances a year ago. That meant Blackwood and Vanecek would start as the Devils’ duo.

However, injuries happen, and that can change things as it did here. After getting his leg caught underneath him when trying to make a save against the Edmonton Oilers about six weeks ago, the Devils announced Blackwood would miss three to six weeks with an MCL sprain. Given last season, most thought Daws would get the call-up to back up Vanecek. Instead, the Devils brought up Schmid, and he ran with the opportunity. 

While Schmid’s sample size was quite small, it’s hard to ignore what he did. In his eight appearances, he totaled a .932 SV% and stopped 6.47 goals above expected. That latter number ranks 17th in the league for goalies with at least 200 minutes logged. He made six starts, with five qualifying as quality starts (.833 quality start percentage). 

Akira Schmid New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Akira Schmid (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Schmid is only 22 years old, but it’s not hard to see the promise he has as a goalie, specifically because of his athleticism. The Devils returned him to the Comets on Monday, where he should get decent minutes alongside Daws. But given the way he played in the NHL, it probably won’t be the last time we see him this season. 

With that said, Schmid isn’t the only reason there’s pressure on Blackwood to play well in his return from an MCL sprain. Despite a six-game winless streak, the Devils are 21-9-2 and in the thick of the Metropolitan Division playoff picture. Given how Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald has built the team’s tandem, they will need two goalies playing at above-average levels. If Blackwood doesn’t improve on his .879 SV%, Fitzgerald could look for outside help to ensure the team remains a contender for the stretch run. 

Devils Will Have Rental Options

It’s too early to go in-depth on potential goaltenders the Devils could target ahead of the trade deadline. But if things go south with Blackwood and Fitzgerald wants a veteran option instead of having to rely on a 22-year-old Schmid to solidify a playoff spot, he will have options. For the time being, we’ll at least briefly mention a few potential targets. 

The most obvious would be James Reimer, who’s about as consistent as it comes for a 1B goaltender. Before last night’s tilt against the Calgary Flames, he had a .907 SV% this season. Over his last 87 games, he has a .909 SV%, with most of that coming on a struggling San Jose Sharks team. He would shore up the Devils in net as a rental. 

James Reimer San Jose Sharks
San Jose Sharks goaltender James Reimer (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another name to keep an eye on would be New Jersey native Anthony Stolarz. He has just a .886 SV% this season, but the Anaheim Ducks are truly awful. Team effects are likely having a significant impact on his numbers, so a change of scenery might serve him well. Cam Talbot has a .916 SV% on the last-place Ottawa Senators and could end up on the move if they don’t make up ground in the Atlantic Division. Kevin Lankinen has a .925 SV% in eight games and might end up as trade bait if the Predators don’t pull themselves into the playoff picture too. 

The bottom line is Blackwood has gotten plenty of chances with the Devils to turn it around, but this may be his last one. The team can no longer afford to wait for him to make strides. He has an opportunity to change his fortunes with a big start against the Florida Panthers tonight as the Devils look to end their skid. A win and a strong performance could get him on the right foot and do wonders for all parties. But if he doesn’t turn it around soon and rise up to the pressure head-on, there might not be any runway left for him in New Jersey. 

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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey