On July 8, the New Jersey Devils kicked off their offseason by trading for Washington Capitals goaltender Vitek Vanecek. Later that month, they extended him to a three-year contract worth $3.4 million per year. At the time, he was seen as a tandem goaltender, and it was expected that he would play alongside Mackenzie Blackwood on a Devils team that used seven different netminders last season. However, an injury to Blackwood changed that, and Vanecek has started 13 of the team’s first 23 games.
It looks like he might have earned the official starting job with his play, even when Blackwood returns, as Vanecek is in the Vezina conversation a quarter of the way through the season.
Vanecek’s Tandem Past
Entering the season, Vanecek never knew what it was like to be a true number 1 goaltender. In Washington, he was competing for starts with Ilya Samsonov, who also left the Capitals in the offseason. The sample size was small for New Jersey to make a move for him, as he only played 79 games in the nation’s Capital. He won 41 of those games, but it was his other numbers that caught Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald’s eye. Over two years in Washington, he put up a 2.68 goals-against average (GAA) and a .908 save percentage (SV%). He faced over 1,000 shots in each of his two seasons and played over 2,000 minutes. He also racked up six shutouts over his time in Washington and had four last season alone. That’s twice as many as the Devils had as a team in 2021-22, which is why they decided to ship a third-round pick to the Capitals for the 26-year-old.
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When Blackwood went down with an MCL sprain, Vanecek was called on for an increased role. Blackwood put up middling results early in the season, with a 2.79 GAA and .880 SV%. There was a slight worry with Vanecek getting so many minutes, as the last thing the Devils wanted to see was a repeat of last season’s goalie carousel. However, he has put the team on his back and he already has more wins than any Devils goalie did all of last season.
Vanecek’s Breakout Campaign
In the 13 games that Vanecek has started for the Devils, he’s come out on the winning side in 11 of them. His SV% is now .923, instead of the .908 he had in each season with the Caps. His GAA has dropped considerably, from 2.69 in 2021-22 to a remarkable 2.12 in 2022-23. That puts him second in the NHL behind Linus Ullmark of the Boston Bruins. He’s allowed just 29 goals all season, a remarkable feat. Vanecek is only allowing 2.23 goals per game, and with the Devils finding the net the way they have been recently, their plus-36 goal differential is second in the league, just behind the Bruins.
When looking at Vanecek’s advanced stats, there’s also a significant increase from his years as a tandem goaltender in Washington. He allowed six shorthanded goals before coming to New Jersey, where he has stopped all 10 shorthanded chances he’s faced. Out of the 29 goals he has allowed, eight have come on the man advantage, good enough for an .882 SV%, While that number might not seem impressive on the surface, it’s a jump from his .863 and .864 he had in his prior two seasons.
Vanecek’s expected goals allowed took a massive dip from 78 to 23, and his goals saved above average skyrocketed from 0.9 last season to 6.3 this season. In 79 games with Washington, he had 11 games where he had less than a .850 SV%. To start the 2022-23 season, he only has one in 15 games. Out of his 13 starts, 10 of them have been quality starts, and his .769 quality start percentage puts him among the NHL’s elite goaltenders.
While Vanecek has certainly looked the part of one of the NHL’s best netminders this season, an argument can be made that the defense around him has greatly improved. Dougie Hamilton, Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, and John Marino make up one of the league’s strongest top-four units, and they alone have prevented their fair share of goals. It’s also important to note that Akira Schmid has looked as good in net as Vanecek has this season. In three starts, he’s only allowed four goals and has a 1.24 GAA and a .953 SV%. With Blackwood’s return looming, could it be possible that he becomes the odd man out with Vanecek and Schmid playing as strong as they have?
Vanecek’s breakout campaign has been a pleasant surprise for a Devils team that has been filled with them so far this season. The team as a whole is playing above expectations, and goaltending is just a spoke on the wheel that is the 2022-23 Devils. When Fitzgerald signed Vanecek to a three-year, $10.2 million contract in the summer, he could not have imagined he would get this type of production. He’s just 26 years old, and he has plenty of room to grow in the red and black. While Vanecek has never seen this much NHL action before, he’s stepped up to the plate and delivered, helping the Devils earn their place among the league’s elite teams early on.
Erik Johnsen is one of the NJ Devils writer for The Hockey Writers. He is also a writer for Triple Play Newsletter. Erik is a 2022 Rider University graduate, and co-hosts a podcast called Too Many Men.