Devils Gamble on Vanecek to Spark Goaltending

Goaltending was priority No. 1 for the New Jersey Devils this offseason. Ahead of Day 2 of the NHL Draft yesterday, they got their man, acquiring Vitek Vanecek and the 46th overall pick from the Washington Capitals in exchange for picks 37 and 70 in the 2022 draft. Vanecek, 26 years old, finished this season with a .908 save percentage (SV%) and is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer. 

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The Devils finished with a team SV% of .881 last season, so Vanecek should help. But how much of an upgrade is he? And will he be partnering up with Mackenzie Blackwood to form the Devils’ tandem? Or does general manager Tom Fitzgerald have another move up his sleeve? 

Vanecek a Steady Presence in Net

With Ilya Samsonov struggling over the last two seasons, Vanecek had taken over the reins as the Capitals’ 1A. His numbers over that stretch are remarkably steady, as he posted a .908 SV% each season. The league average SV% since the start of 2020-21 is .903, so he’s been an above-league-average netminder, something the Devils have not come close to receiving for quite some time. 

With a .908 career SV% to this point, Vanecek is not necessarily the first name you could’ve come up with for the Devils to upgrade goaltending. But when you pull up the hood and inspect what’s underneath, his numbers are actually quite good and show he might have a bit more potential than being a .908 goaltender. 

Since coming into the league in 2020, Vanecek has a .922 five-on-five SV% in 79 games played. That ties Connor Hellebuyck and Antti Raanta and places him ahead of Ville Husso, who the Detroit Red Wings acquired and re-signed yesterday morning. Vanecek also has a solid high-danger SV% of .827, putting him of Robin Lehner, Tristan Jarry, and Jack Campbell, who’s looking for a payday as a free agent in the next week.  

However, when expanded to all strengths, Vanecek’s high-danger SV% falls to .793. The main reason for the drop is he’s struggled on the penalty kill in his two-year NHL career. His shorthanded high-danger SV% of .736 ranks fourth-worst in the NHL since the start of 2020-21 for goalies who’ve logged at least 250 minutes. Interestingly enough, the three netminders with a worse high-danger SV% on the penalty kill in that span are Blackwood, Jarry, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. 

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
New Jersey Devils’ newly acquired goaltender Vitek Vanecek (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

But otherwise, Vanecek has stopped .862 percent of the shots he’s faced on the penalty kill, which is decent. That ranks him ahead of netminders such as Juuse Saros and Thatcher Demko. Vanecek has only logged 352 minutes shorthanded compared to over 3500 minutes at five-on-five. His poor high-danger SV% on the penalty kill could be noise given the small sample size because he’s done well stopping high-danger shots at five-on-five. 

Another concern about Vanecek, per se, is his consistency. When looking at his 10-game rolling average for 2021-22, there were some wild swings: 

  • Games 1-10: .912 SV%
  • Games 11-20: .907 SV%
  • Games 21-30: .934 SV%
  • Games 31-42: .885 SV%

The most notable swing is from Games 21-30 to 31-42. As far as I can tell, Vanecek wasn’t suffering from an injury in that final 11-game stretch. It was just a slump he went through to close out the season, but before then, he had a .917 SV% across 30 games. Sometimes these things are more mental than physical. But if the Devils can help him find some more consistency to avoid a downswing such as the one he had to close 2021-22, he has the potential to be better than a .908 goaltender.

Vanecek’s Next Contract

Since Vanecek is an RFA with arbitration rights, the Devils will need to get him signed to a new deal over the next few weeks. There isn’t any concern that they won’t, but it will be interesting to see what kind of contract the two sides end up agreeing to. Per Evolving-Hockey, they project him to land a four-year deal worth $5.341 million annually. 

Related: Devils Could Look to Capitals to Upgrade Netminding

If that seems like a lot for Vanecek, it’s because it is. The Red Wings signed Husso to a three-year deal at a cap hit of $4.75 million yesterday. He’s coming off a season in which he posted a .919 SV% and was arguably a top-10 goaltender in the NHL. His career SV% of .912 may not be that far off from Vanecek’s, but I’d bet on Vanecek not getting paid more than Husso. 

Husso’s deal does provide us with a solid baseline of what Vanecek and the Devils could agree to, though. Long gone are the days of goaltenders getting long-term contracts over four years, unless you’re someone like Vasilevsky. Eventually, Ilya Sorokin and Igor Shesterkin will fall in that category too. Three years is perfectly reasonable for Vanecek, especially since he’s only 26 years old. He also hasn’t played more than 100 games yet, so giving him anything more than two to three years on a new deal is asking for trouble. 

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals
Vitek Vanecek with the Washington Capitals (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On a two-year deal, Evolving-Hockey projects Vanecek to earn a cap hit of $3.995 million, which is reasonable given the numbers he’s put up in his two years. If the Devils decide to give him a third year, Evolving-Hockey projects a cap hit of $5.038 million. Given what the Red Wings gave Husso, that’s probably a bit on the higher side. If I had to make an educated guess, a three-year deal would probably net Vanecek somewhere close to $4.5 million per year. 

That might seem like a bit much still, but Vanecek’s numbers are a bit better than Jonathan Bernier’s, who the Devils signed last year to a two-year deal at a cap hit of $4.125 million (more on him in a second). That’s the going rate for goaltenders, especially ones capable of handling a workload of 40-45 games a season. So that’s likely a general ballpark of what the two sides end up agreeing to. 

Vanecek and Blackwood Leading the Way?

The next biggest question is what does the Devils’ tandem look like next season?. Vanecek is obviously the goaltender that management thinks can help give them an upgrade for next season, but will Blackwood be his partner? Blackwood has struggled the last two seasons, but COVID ruined his 2020-21, while a nagging heel injury and getting overworked while still injured this past season killed any chances of him having success. 

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Judging by Fitzgerald’s comments yesterday, there’s a pretty good chance that their plan is to go into 2022-23 with a Blackwood and Vanecek tandem. The key to that duo’s success is Blackwood’s health and his bouncing back to the goalie he was before the pandemic started. They’ll need to him be an above-league-average netminder as Vanecek has been over the last two seasons. Otherwise, it won’t work. 

However, Bernier is a wild card. He underwent major hip surgery in December and is still working his way back. It doesn’t seem like he’ll be ready to go to start next season, but it does sound like he’ll at least give a comeback a shot at some point. Hip injuries for goalies could be career enders. Pekka Rinne had hip surgery in 2013 but recovered well and had a lengthy, productive career before retiring in 2021. But others have not been as fortunate, as Cory Schneider and Tuukka Rask had hip injuries that effectively ended their time in the NHL. 

Jonathan Bernier, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Jonathan Bernier (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If Bernier’s recovery goes well and he can play in the NHL again, that could change things for the Devils if Blackwood continues to struggle. As of now, it doesn’t appear there’s a firm timetable for Bernier’s return, and there won’t be any way to know until next season draws closer. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking he can return to being a solid 1B goaltender, especially since he turns 34 in a month, but it’s too soon to rule it out. 

The Devils got a much-needed upgrade in net with Vanecek. While I don’t think there’s an elite goaltender in the making, he is an above-league-average netminder. If the Devils can help him iron out some consistency issues, he has the potential to crack the .910 mark for the first time in his career. The team hasn’t gotten that kind of goaltending since they last made the playoffs in 2017-18. Assuming Vanecek can give them that with a bounce-back from Blackwood, it could go a long way for the 2022-23 version of the Devils. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick; contract projections from Evolving-Hockey