Goaltending has been hard to come by for the New Jersey Devils in 2018-19. They have the third-worst save percentage in the league and that’s due to the struggles of Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider, the latter of whom hasn’t won a game in a calendar year.
With Schneider returning to injured reserve over a week ago, the team called up Mackenzie Blackwood from their AHL affiliate. He has made four appearances (two starts) and has impressed. He’s given them a spark and is making his case to be the Devils’ starting goaltender for the foreseeable future.
Blackwood’s Climb Back to the Top
It’s been a long and winding road for Blackwood since the Devils drafted him in 2015. He had a stellar plus-one draft season in 2015-16, when he posted a .921 save percentage (SV%) with the Barrie Colts of the OHL. He made his pro debut in 2016-17 and posted a .907 SV% with the AHL’s Albany Devils in 36 games.
Blackwood’s second pro season was unrelenting. The Binghamton Devils, following their departure from Albany, weren’t very good, but there was no excuse for his play either. He had an .882 SV% and was eventually demoted to the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL, where he managed to get things back on track.
His ECHL demotion may have served as a wake-up call. Before his call-up, he had a .911 SV% in the AHL this season and showed noticeable improvement. His improved play has carried over to the NHL, and then some. He has a .939 SV% in his four appearances, which was helped by a 40-save performance for his first NHL win against the Boston Bruins on Thursday night. He also has a 3.17 goals saved above average (GSAA) in all situations, best among Devils goalies.
Blackwood has been impressive at five-on-five as well with a .947 SV%. He’s also making the saves he needs to. He has stopped every low-danger shot he’s faced and has a .939 SV% against medium-danger shots. Both of those are fantastic, but there is a chance they come down a bit. He has a .923 expected save percentage, so it’d be fair to expect regression at some point.
The numbers are nice, but he passes the eye test too. He’s calm and collected in net. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, he’s an imposing figure between the pipes. His positioning is sound and, as Damon Severson will tell you, Blackwood’s a heck of an athlete. “Yeah, he’s a freak of an athlete. His legs are huge, big man. He’s really well built. He’s a freak for sure.” Severson told Amanda Stein of NHL.com.
Kinkaid, Schneider Not Cutting It
It’s not a secret that Kinkaid and Schneider haven’t been able to get the job done. Since his 4-0-0 start, Kinkaid has an .892% and an 8-10-6 record. He has a quality start percentage of 44.4 on the season, which is below the league average. He’s also given up four or more goals in eight of his last 12 starts. That doesn’t cut it for an NHL goalie.
Schneider’s performance has been even worse. He has an .852 SV%, is 0-5-1 on the season and has a minus-8.96 GSAA, ninth-worst in the NHL, among goaltenders with at least 200 minutes played. His struggles date back to last season, as he has an 0-15-3 record in the regular season since Dec. 27, 2017.
Neither goaltender’s numbers are acceptable at this level. The Devils have put up decent five-on-five numbers this season but have been brought down by bad goaltending. The result is the team falling to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. They’re 10 points of a wild-card spot and 11 points out an automatic bid in the Metropolitan Division.
It’s a lot of ground to make up, even with more than half the season remaining. If the Devils had received the goaltending they needed earlier, things could be much different. The hope is Blackwood can be a solution and at least help give them a chance to get back in the picture.
Blackwood Is the Devils’ Best Option
Time will tell if Blackwood is the real deal. But given the Devils situation, and the way he has played, he’s the team’s best option in net. They haven’t thrown in the towel on their season yet, so giving him minutes makes sense. He’s given them a lift they haven’t had in net all season.
There’s also a bit of long-term thought that goes into playing Blackwood. I don’t know if the Devils will be able to count on Schneider going forward given how he’s played the last year. Kinkaid will also be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Chances are one or both of those goalies may not be in New Jersey next season.
If Blackwood shows his NHL performance isn’t a fluke, it’ll relieve the nerves of anyone who thought the Devils’ goaltending situation was in dire straits. They’d still need to find someone to back him up, and that could still be one of Schneider or Kinkaid, but at least the Devils would know they have a viable option in Blackwood heading into 2019-20. That’s not something they could have said prior to this season.
*Advanced stats from Corsica.Hockey