Goaltending was one of the biggest question marks for the New Jersey Devils coming into the 2019-20 campaign. While two preseason games won’t erase those doubts, it’s hard not to be encouraged by the performance of Cory Schneider. He’s only logged 80 minutes of ice time, but considering how he finished 2018-19, it looks like he could be heading for a bounce-back season.
Schneider Trending in the Right Direction
Schneider had a wild 2018-19. He missed the start of training camp and the regular season after undergoing hip surgery in the summer, an injury he said had been bothering him since 2016-17. When he returned to action last October, he still did not look like himself. In his first nine games played, he posted a .852 save percentage (SV%) and had a record of 0-5-1.
As if his struggles on the ice weren’t enough, injuries would soon become a problem again. He’d return to injured reserve in early December, this time for an abdominal strain. He’d miss the next month-plus of action, and by the time he returned, the Devils were well out of the playoff picture. But that didn’t mean it was time for Schneider to sit back and relax.
Changes were coming during the summer, given the team’s poor finish in the standings. And since the Devils had the league’s fifth-worst SV%, goaltending could have been in line for a shakeup. Fortunately, Schneider came to play, even if the games didn’t have much meaning. He went on to finish with a .921 SV% over his final 17 games played, making him one of the team’s few bright spots. And it appears that’s carried over into training camp.
Even though he’s yet to play a full game, Schneider has been outstanding in preseason action. He has a .936 SV% at all strengths and a .939 SV% at five-on-five. It’s an incredibly small sample size, so it’s tough to make any conclusions just based on the stats. But when you watch him play, it’s easy to see why his numbers are so stellar.
In 40 minutes against the Boston Bruins, he stopped 17/18 shots. He then followed it up by saving 27/29 shots in 40 minutes against the New York Rangers two nights later, and it was that performance that stood out the most. He looked the quickest he had in quite some time, even during his strong close to last season. And he made several acrobatic saves on some quality scoring chances by the Rangers.
What’s most impressive about Schneider is he’s yet to do it in front of a full lineup. He hasn’t played with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri helping provide offense in front of him. Nor has he played with his regular blue line. That will change as the Devils make more cuts before the preseason closes out, and it should only help get him in more of a groove before meaningful games begin.
The Pieces Are in Place
On paper, the Devils should be a much-improved team. They drafted Jack Hughes with the first overall pick, and he looked great in his debut, scoring the game-winning goal against the Bruins. The team also acquired Nikita Gusev from the Vegas Golden Knights, and he’s already made an impact, with a goal and an assist in two games. That assist happened to set up Hughes for his winner, too.
On defense, the Devils will benefit from adding P.K. Subban. His skill set is something their blue line has lacked since the glory days of Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. He may be coming off his worst season as an NHLer, but injuries likely played a part in that. He showed no signs of any health issues in his Devils’ debut, as he was one of their best skaters against the Bruins.
The next part of the equation is goaltending, and that’s where Schneider will have his say. He’s finished with a below league average SV% in each of the last three seasons and has not had an SV% above .910 since 2015-16. That won’t cut it for a team that’s looking to get back to the playoffs after taking a step back in 2018-19.
Health has been a concern for Schneider, too, so load management will be key to getting the most out of him. Fortunately, he has a backup in Mackenzie Blackwood who looks the part and should be able to split games with him. With that said, Schneider will be the no. 1 goaltender to start the regular season. The Devils can’t clinch a playoff spot in October. But they could lose one if their goaltending isn’t up to par, so he needs to be on top of his game.
If Schneider’s start to the preseason — and his close to 2018-19 — are any indication, it looks like he’s on track to rebound. With the team having had the fifth-worst SV% a season ago, there’s almost no way for them to go but up. If they can get above-average goaltending, say around .910-.915%, they should be in good shape. And it starts with Schneider continuing to show the improvement he has in the calendar year 2019.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick