There’s no question the New Jersey Devils need to improve their goaltending situation. Other than the 2017-18 season, it’s been a pressing need for a few years. And former general manager Ray Shero neglected the position for most of his tenure before his firing in January.
There are a couple of ways the Devils can address their netminding needs. If they plan to compete for a playoff spot in 2020-21, they could target unrestricted free agents like Thomas Greiss or Robin Lehner to be a 1B to Mackenzie Blackwood. That’d also mean a buy out for Cory Schneider, whose contract runs through 2021-22, could be in order.
But if the team is thinking beyond just 2020-21, they could have a different strategy. They could hang on to Schneider for another season before deciding what to do with him. Though that doesn’t mean they can neglect the position, and that’s where looking to add a young goaltender makes sense. They could use one of their three first-round picks on Yaroslav Askarov, the top goalie in the 2020 draft. But another option they have is to look at European and NCAA free agents, where there are some intriguing names available.
John Lethemon (NCAA)
Lethemon is one of the lesser-known UFAs from the NCAA. He’s improved in each season while playing on a Michigan State team that was one of the weaker ones in the entire NCAA. He finished with a .873 SV% as a freshman but saw it rise to .905% by his junior season. He finished his senior season with a .935 SV%, ranked seventh in the entire NCAA, in 33 games played.
His improvement is notable, and it came through some injury struggles too. He had hip and ab injuries going into his sophomore season, followed by a sports hernia going into his junior season. So this past summer was the only one where he was able to train without any restrictions (from ‘For Michigan State’s John Lethemon, the NHL’s pause means living in limbo,’ The Athletic – 3/21/20).
Lethemon won’t be taking over as an NHL starter any time soon. But the improvement over each season is what you like to see in any young prospect. He’s a bit bigger than some of the other NCAA and European free agents, at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. And at 23 years old, he’s almost a year younger than Hunter Shepard, the top NCAA free agent goalie.
Alexei Melnichuk (KHL)
Melnichuk is only 21 years old, but he already has plenty of pro experience. He played in 30 games in the VHL in 2018-19 — Russia’s second division hockey league — and finished with a .924 save percentage (SV%). He split time between the VHL and KHL in 2019-20 but shined in the KHL, where he had a .930 SV% in 16 games.
Melnichuk is also on the smaller side, at 6-foot-1, 181 pounds. There are also some questions whether he’s fast enough in net to play in the NHL. Still, there isn’t a ton of risk signing him if you’re the Devils. He’s only 21 and has plenty of upside, which is what they should be betting on in making this kind of signing.
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TSN’s Darren Dreger reports Melnichuk will sign with an NHL team this offseason, and that he’s narrowed his list down to four clubs, all of whom are US-based. I’d be surprised if the Devils are one of those clubs, but they certainly could use his services. And there’d be playing time for him in the AHL with the Binghamton Devils as Gilles Senn’s backup.
Hunter Shepard (NCAA)
Shepard had an incredibly impressive track record playing for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He captured two national titles and was an NCAA first-team All American in 2018-19. He had an SV% above .920 in each of his first three seasons before finishing with a .918 SV% as a senior.
He’s a bit undersized, at 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, for a modern NHL goalie, but he makes up for it with his quickness. As Corey Pronman of The Athletic states, “he’s an extremely quick goalie who can make the tough saves consistently. He tracks pucks very well and tends to make all the right reads in the net. His game can have some extra movement at times, but part of that is just due to how quick he is.” (From ‘Pronman: Top free agents from college hockey, major junior and Europe,’ The Athletic – 2/27/20)
Shepard will be 25 years old in November, so he might not be far off from playing in the NHL. With that said, he’d benefit from some time in Binghamton. And splitting starts between him and Senn could help the organization develop a reliable safety net if Schneider or Blackwood gets injured.
Cale Morris (NCAA)
Morris was one of the top NCAA goalies in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He only played in one game as a freshman, but he took the nation by storm as a sophomore, with a .944 SV% in 37 games, tied for first in the nation with Colton Point. He followed that up with a .930 SV% as a junior in 2018-19, ranked eighth in the NCAA.
Morris’s SV% slipped to .916 as a senior, but that’s because Notre Dame was a much worse team than in his previous two seasons. With that said, his contributions as a sophomore and junior can’t be understated. He helped lead Notre Dame to the National Title game in 2018, and he won the Mike Richter Award as the NCAA’s top goalie.
Related: The Top Ten NHL Goalie Prospects
Like Shepard and Melnichuk, Morris is a bit on the smaller side, at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. But even with that and some regression as a senior, he’ll likely get a shot with an NHL organization in the near future. It’s hard to ignore what he did as a sophomore and junior, and it’s not like his SV% cratered as a senior. He’d give most teams, like the Devils, the organizational depth they need to succeed in the NHL and AHL.
Devils Need to Account for Schneider’s Injury Woes
Schneider has a lengthy injury history, so if the Devils hang on to him, they’ll need to have players ready to go in the AHL. Senn looks like he’s getting closer to filling that role, as he had an excellent finish to the AHL season. But Binghamton can’t be left in the dust if/when Senn is playing in the NHL.
The Devils ventured into the NCAA free agent market when they signed Cam Johnson to an entry-level contract in 2018. That signing didn’t work out, as Johnson is no longer part of the organization. But they have a decent crop to pick from between Lethemon, Shepard, and Morris, all of whom could help in the AHL right away. The same is true of Melnichuk, and he probably has the highest upside between the four. They might not be the next Martin Brodeur, but they’d give the Devils’ goaltending pipeline the depth it’s needed for a few years.
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Prospect stats from Elite Prospects