Things were looking dire for New Jersey Devils’ goaltenders early this season. Cory Schneider had a five-month layoff after offseason hip surgery and did not look like himself when he returned. Keith Kinkaid played in his absence but struggled with a starter’s workload. The Devils suffered as a result and had a quick plummet to the bottom of the NHL.
While the Devils’ place in the standings hasn’t changed, it hasn’t been because of their goaltending. Mackenzie Blackwood has put up numbers among the NHL’s elite goaltenders, while Schneider looks to be regaining his form. The Devils also have a couple of goaltending prospects to keep an eye on down the road. What looked a major weakness at the start of the season is beginning to look a strength heading into the offseason.
Blackwood, Schneider Producing
How Schneider would fare after major surgery was one of the Devils’ early-season storylines. Things did not go well, as he posted a .852 save percentage (SV%) in his first nine appearances before returning to injured reserve. That left Kinkaid to pick up the slack, and he held water at first, posting a .910 SV% in his first 20 appearances. But the workload quickly caught up to him in December, where he had a .876 SV%.
Schneider’s return to IR, coupled with Kinkaid’s struggles, opened the door for Blackwood to get playing time. Before his first NHL start, the Devils had the second-worst SV% in the NHL, so there was nothing to lose by starting him. He made his first start against the Columbus Blue Jackets and stopped 36 of 38 shots he faced. He followed that up with a 40-save performance against the Boston Bruins for his first NHL win.
Blackwood hasn’t looked back since and has some of the best numbers among NHL goaltenders. He has a .932 SV% in 14 starts and a goals saved above average of 9.15, the latter of which is better than Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price. He’s provided a big lift to the Devils in between the pipes, but he’s not the only reason. After his second stint on injured reserve, Schneider has looked like a new goalie. He returned to play on Feb. 7 and has posted a .923 SV% in 11 games played, a big change from his first nine appearances of the season.
The Devils may not be getting more wins, but there’s been a noticeable shift in their team save percentage since Blackwood’s first start on Dec. 20. They have a .904 SV%, ranked 17th in the NHL. That’s still lower than where they’d like it to be, but a positive trend is a positive trend. With Kinkaid’s trade to the Blue Jackets, the Devils will be able to split starts between Schneider and Blackwood, so I’d expect that trend to continue as the season winds down.
Devils’ Goaltending Prospects on the Up
The Devils’ pool of goalie prospects was not looking great a few months ago, either, but that’s improved quickly. Prospects Akira Schmid and Evan Cormier are playing above expectations in their respective leagues. And don’t forget about Gilles Senn, who’s been playing in Switzerland since the Devils drafted him in 2017.
Schmid and Cormier both have interesting stories. Cormier was a Devils’ fourth-round pick in 2016, and he had decent numbers on a bad team in the OHL, but they opted not to sign him by last summer’s deadline. He would end up playing for the University of Guelph in Canada, where he posted a .926 SV%. It didn’t look like there was a place for him with the Devils, but that changed earlier this season.
The Binghamton Devils (AHL) signed Cormier to an amateur tryout when Blackwood and Cam Johnson were brought up to the NHL. He would go on to post a .933 SV% in his first six appearances, which earned him an entry-level contract with the team after Kinkaid’s trade. He has a .913 SV% in 10 games played in the AHL and is slowly taking over the starter’s role. It’s quite the turnaround for someone who was playing Canadian college hockey a couple of months ago.
Schmid’s journey has some similarities to Cormier’s. He was a Devils fifth-round pick less than a year ago and chose to come to North America right away. He appeared in one game for the Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL) but was placed on waivers after posting a .741 SV% in one start. He would play two games for the Corpus Christi IceRays (NAHL) before settling in with the Omaha Lancers in the USHL.
Schmid has been one of the best goalies since arriving in the USHL, posting a .931 SV% in 27 games played, ranked first in the league. The Lancers were 19 points out of the playoffs but now sit in the final spot thanks to his performance. His fast rise in the USHL has been impressive and has him shooting up the list of Devils’ top prospects.
Senn is a bit of unknown, but at 23 years old, he’s the oldest among Schmid and Cormier. He’s expected to come to North America for 2019-20 and should get playing time in Binghamton. It’s hard to get read on his numbers (.901 SV% in 20 appearances) because he plays on a team that was just relegated from the Swiss A. We’ll have to wait and see where he is once he transitions over to North American ice.
Devils’ Goalie Depth Key for Offseason
The Devils’ goaltending situation has come a long way in a short amount of time. Blackwood isn’t proven yet, but his potential is through the roof, and it looks like he could be an elite goaltender. There’s still a ways to go before saying Schneider is back, but it looks like he’s heading in the right direction. That puts the Devils in good shape in the NHL.
In the AHL, it’ll be Cormier’s job to lose in 2019-20. Johnson will be an RFA this summer, and I’m not 100% positive the Devils will bring him back. He has a .876 SV%, so if they’re planning to bring over Senn this summer, it may come at Johnson’s expense if he doesn’t show some improvement to end the season.
The Devils have two promising prospects in Schmid and Cormier, and it’s possible Senn has some potential too. You never know how their future development will go, but so far, the results are positive. That further strengthens the Devils’ goalie depth. And with Schneider and Blackwood playing well, it looks like goaltending will be a strength instead of a problem heading into the summer.
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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