Goaltending is the most valuable position in hockey, just like a quarterback is in the NFL. If a team can’t find a player who can perform at either position, they’re going to have some problems. And that’s the dilemma facing the New Jersey Devils’ goaltending, as their .882 save percentage (SV%) ranks third-worst in the league.
The team’s goaltending woes aren’t anything new. Cory Schneider finished last season with a .903 SV% and got off to an awful start this season before being placed on waivers and sent to the AHL. Mackenzie Blackwood has shown promise, but he’s still developing at 23 years old and needs someone who can help lighten his workload. So how can general manager Ray Shero fix a position that needs a significant upgrade?
Examining the Devils’ Goaltending Issues
It’s been a rough go for Devils’ goaltenders for the better part of the last season-plus. It looked like things were heading in the right direction last season, as Keith Kinkaid helped the team get off to a 4-0-0 start. But things went downhill quite fast, with the Devils falling to the NHL’s basement because of some the league’s worst goaltending.
Even though things weren’t looking great, Schneider finished 2018-19 with a .921 SV% over his final 15 starts, while Blackwood finished with a .918 SV% in 21 starts. But those strong closes haven’t carried over into this season — Blackwood has .899 SV% in 19 starts, and Schneider had a .852 SV% before being sent to the AHL.
Shero may have let the position be this offseason, but he did acquire Louis Domingue from the Tampa Bay Lightning a few weeks ago to try and put a band-aid over the situation. Unfortunately, Domingue has struggled since being called up to the NHL, as he has a .858 SV% in five games played.
If there is a silver lining, it’s Blackwood has shown signs of improvement since a rough start to the season. He’s 8-7-1 in his last 17 games played and has a .906 SV%, which is just a bit below league average. If he can elevate his game a bit and give the Devils .910 goaltending consistently, they’ll gladly take it.
But that may not be the easiest of tasks, as the Devils’ team defense has struggled. Shero traded for P.K. Subban over the summer, but he hasn’t provided the lift for the team’s blueline many hoped he would. At the same time, no defensive unit is perfect. Breakdowns will happen, and the Devils’ goalies need to bail out their defense more often than they have over the last season-plus.
Finding a Fix for the Devils
It’s easier said than done to address goaltending in the middle of the season. So it’s likely the Devils take care of the position during the offseason. There’ll be a few goaltenders available, whether it’s in free agency, the trade market, or the NHL Entry Draft. Here are potential targets.
It was a bit of a shock to see the New York Islanders let Lehner walk in free agency last summer. He posted a .930 SV% with the team and played a significant role in getting them to the playoffs. But him hitting the open market allowed the Chicago Blackhawks, who needed a backup for the oft-injured Corey Crawford, to swoop in and sign Lehner.
Lehner’s split starts with Crawford and has picked up where he left off with the Islanders. He’s played in 15 games and has a .929 SV%, as well as a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 10.03, ranked sixth in the NHL this season. It may cost a bit to sign him as a free agent, but as long as it isn’t similar to the deal Sergei Bobrovsky signed with the Florida Panthers, Lehner would be an ideal fit for the Devils.
Raanta has struggled with injuries, but he’s been among the league’s best when healthy. He has a .925 SV% and GSAA of 31.05, both of which rank in the top 10 of the NHL over his last 70 games played. But as great as he’s been, Darcy Kuemper’s been even better and has overtaken him as the Arizona Coyotes’ starting netminder.
The Coyotes have a tight cap situation and will have only $785,000 in projected cap space this summer. Chances are GM John Chayka will have to shed salary, and that’s where Raanta may turn into a cap casualty. His deal expires at the end of the 2020-21 season and comes with a cap hit of $4.025 million. That’s a lot to pay for a backup, so if the Coyotes decide to move him this offseason, he’d be the perfect trade target for Shero.
Thatcher Demko/Jacob Markstrom
The Vancouver Canucks have done quite the job of developing goaltenders in recent seasons. Markstrom has turned into a reliable starter, while Demko can be counted on as a solid backup. They also have the 20-year-old Michael Dipietro, who’s one of the best goalie prospects in the NHL.
Markstrom will be a free agent this summer, but given he’s the Canucks no. 1 option, they may choose to re-sign him. It’s also probably safe to assume Dipietro, whose .913 SV% ranks second among AHL rookies this season, will be Markstrom’s successor. He’s not too far off from the NHL, and that could mean the Canucks look to move Demko at some point. He’s only 24 years old and still has untapped potential worth gambling on. If they decide to let Markstrom walk, he’d also be an intriguing free agent option for the Devils.
The Devils and New York Rangers have not teamed up for many trades in the past, as they’ve only made one since the Devils relocated to New Jersey in the 1980s. And that was just a couple of years ago when the Devils acquired Michael Grabner at the trade deadline during the 2017-18 season.
The Rangers have no shortage of quality goaltenders. Henrik Lundqvist is still playing at a high level at 37 years old, and they have arguably the best goaltending prospect in the league in Igor Shesterkin. Georgiev will lose his waivers exempt status in just a few games. And with Shesterkin dominating the AHL, the Rangers could trade Georgiev to open an NHL roster spot for Shesterkin at some point. I’d file this in the “unlikely category,” but it wouldn’t hurt the Devils to check in on his availability because he would provide an immediate fix.
Instead of relying on a trade or overspending in free agency, the Devils take a chance on using a high draft pick in 2020 — potentially in the top five — to improve their goaltending. Askarov is regarded as the best netminding prospect in the upcoming 2020 Entry Draft and could be a superstar in the NHL somewhere down the road.
There’s a lot of risk in using a high draft pick on a goaltender, and the Devils wouldn’t reap the rewards until a couple of years down the road. But having a tandem of Askarov and Blackwood is pretty appealing, given each’s potential to play at a high level in the NHL. It may not be the quick fix they need, but it’s something Shero should give consideration.
Standing Pat Isn’t an Option
The Devils have a whole host of issues to address, but goaltending tops the list. Schneider is a shell of what he used to be, and it’d be a surprise to see him regain the form he had before his hip issues flared up a few seasons ago. Blackwood has shown promise, but he’s only 23 years old and still needs time to develop. Plus, it’s hard to win without two reliable netminders in today’s NHL.
That means Shero must address the position at some point between now and next season. Raanta makes a lot of sense, given 2020-21 is the final year of his contract, which allows Blackwood to get a year of development behind one of the top goaltenders in the league. And if the price isn’t too high, taking a shot at Lehner in free agency (if he gets there) would also be wise. But no matter what, there has to be a new face between the pipes for the Devils in 2020-21. Because if there isn’t, it’ll only continue to undermine other improvements made to the roster.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017