Devils’ Success in 2022-23 Will Again Come Down to Goaltending

The New Jersey Devils and poor goaltending: a tale as old as time, at least it’s felt that way over the last few seasons. In 2021-22, the team finished with a save percentage (SV%) of .881, the second-worst mark in the league; only the Seattle Kraken had a worse team SV%. 

As you may have guessed, it cost the Devils any chance it being competitive in the Metropolitan Division. Would league-average goaltending have made them a playoff team last season? No, but it would’ve had them finishing above NHL .500 with around 85 points in the standings. Had that been the case, the vibe around the team would’ve been much different than it was once games concluded. 

For the 2022-23 season, the Devils are hoping for a relatively significant turnaround in their netminding. It’ll likely be the defining factor (again) in whether they’re competing for the playoffs in March and April. But even though they’re hoping for a substantial improvement in their team SV%, it shouldn’t take much to make things interesting in the Metropolitan. 

Devils’ Re-Worked Goaltending Tandem

The Devils went into last season with Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood as their tandem. Things did not start as poorly as they ended, as Bernier had a .914 SV% through his first nine starts, while Blackwood had a .910 SV% through his first ten starts. Unfortunately for them and the team, their decent beginnings quickly came undone due to injuries. 

In a start against the Winnipeg Jets in early December, Bernier gave up six goals on 32 shots. In the following days, the team revealed he was dealing with a significant hip injury and would need season-ending surgery. Nine months later, he’s still recovering and will not be ready to start the new season when camp begins in about a week and a half. 

As for Blackwood, he dealt with an injury of his own. After having surgery on his heel last summer, it never fully recovered and nagged him through the rest of the season. Because of Bernier’s injury, the Devils overworked him, and his numbers suffered as a result. By the time Jan. 19 rolled around, his final start before the Devils shut him down until late April, Blackwood had an .894 SV% in 23 games. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Though Bernier won’t be ready to go for camp, Blackwood’s had a regular offseason of training and appears to be in good health. And fortunately for him, he will have new help in Vitek Vanecek, who the Devils acquired on Day 2 of the 2022 NHL Draft. He spent the last two seasons with the Washington Capitals and has a .908 SV% across 79 career games. 

Even though Vanecek’s .908 SV% may not catch your eye, he was one of the top five-on-five goaltenders a season ago. His five-on-five SV% of .926 ranked ninth among goalies with 1000 minutes logged, while his high-danger SV% of .850 ranked tenth. His overall SV% topped out at .908 because of poor numbers on the penalty kill and 3-on-3. 

However, penalty kill and 3-on-3 sample sizes are quite small, so that could be noise. If Vanecek’s five-on-five numbers were legit, any improvement in his 3-on-3 and penalty kill percentages should put him in a good position to finish with an overall SV% above .910 for the first time in his career. With Blackwood, who should be able to provide league-average netminding if healthy, it’ll make a difference for the Devils. And that should be the bare minimum of what they need to be competitive. 

A Minimum of League-Average Goaltending Will Make the Devils Competitive

Goaltending is undoubtedly the most important position in the NHL. You could even argue it’s one of the most important in all of sports. Elite goaltending does wonders for any team. Just ask the New York Rangers, who got a .934 SV% from Igor Shesterkin a season ago, which rightfully earned him the Vezina Trophy

While it’s nice to have an elite netminder like Shesterkin, the Devils don’t need a Shesterkin to be a postseason team. For this part of the article, we’ll look at playoff teams from three of the last four seasons, with 2019-20 excluded because of COVID shutdowns and the league’s 24-team return-to-play format ahead of the playoff bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. 

This past season, the league-average SV% was .902. Of the 16 teams who qualified for the playoffs, 13 had at least league-average save percentages. However, only five teams had a team SV% above .910 (the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche). The remaining qualified teams had a team SV% below .910, ranging from .900 to .908. 

Igor Shesterkin New York Rangers
The Devils don’t need Shesterkin-level goaltending just to be competitive in the Metropolitan Division (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When looking at previous seasons, it’s not all that different either. In 2020-21, the league-average SV% was .903, with 13 of the 16 playoff teams having at least a league-average SV%. Eight teams finished with an SV% of above .910, while eight were below that mark, ranging from .900 to .908 once again. 

Even in 2018-19, when the league-average SV% was .905 and a bit higher than the last two seasons, 12 of the playoff teams had at least league-average netminding. When the Devils last made the playoffs in 2017-18, they had a team SV% of .908, which was the league average at the time. Save percentages have dropped since then, and they probably won’t increase significantly with the NHL trending toward offense, which should help New Jersey.  

Blackwood Just Needs To Be Above League-Average

The point is, it won’t take much for the Devils to be competitive if Vanecek continues to post a .908 SV% with a league average hovering around .903. If he posts a .908 or anything better moving forward, they should be in the mix. His five-on-five save percentages suggest there may be a bit more to his game if his penalty kill and 3-on-3 numbers are just noise and improve moving forward.

Related: 5 Devils Who Could Be X-Factors in 2022-23

The key for the Devils will be Blackwood, who showed the potential of being more than an above-average goaltender. In his first two years in the league, before COVID shut down the NHL and the world, he totaled a .916 SV% and had stopped 13 goals above average while posting a goals saved above expected just under zero across 70 games. Injuries may prevent him from becoming that type of goalie again, but if he can return to pre-COVID levels, the team will surely be competitive in the Metro. 

But even if Blackwood isn’t capable of being a .916 goalie anymore, the Devils don’t need him to be that. Posting an SV% of .905 to .910 would get the job done if the league average remains where it is. And since the Devils should be able to score goals without too much trouble, especially with an improved power play under Andrew Brunette, that type of goaltending will suffice from Blackwood if Vanecek performs the way he has over his first two seasons. One way or another, it will determine the team’s fate in 2022-23. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey and Hockey Reference