Goaltending has mostly been a problem for the New Jersey Devils since Cory Schneider’s play started declining during the 2016-17 season. Things are starting to come along, however. Though Mackenzie Blackwood struggled in 2020-21 after having a rough bout with COVID, he showed starter potential in his previous two seasons. To help ease his workload, the team signed veteran goaltender Jonathan Bernier to a two-year deal this offseason.
Along with Blackwood, the Devils’ NHL tandem is in good shape with Bernier under contract for the next two years, but he is 33 years old. Eventually, the Devils will have to find another 1B to complement Blackwood. They might have some internal options to consider down the road, as their pipeline has a few intriguing prospects, with a couple set to make organizational debuts when the new season gets underway. After ranking the team’s top 20 prospects late last week in a separate post, let’s take a look at the organization’s top goaltending prospects entering 2021-22.
4. Jakub Málek
The Devils have drafted a goalie at least once in every draft since 2015, mostly in Round 3 or later. The lone exception is Blackwood, who was a second-round pick in 2015. That hasn’t changed since Tom Fitzgerald took over as general manager in 2020. But he went way off the board in selecting Málek, an over-ager, in the fourth round of the 2021 Draft. He was unranked by NHL Central Scouting and every other major scouting service.
It’s hard to know what it is that the Devils like in Málek exactly. It was next to impossible to find any video of him on Youtube or even clips on Twitter. But he did play pro hockey last season, appearing in 14 games for VHK Vsetin in the Czech Republic’s second division, where he posted a .912 save percentage (SV%).
The Devils have had a habit of drafting goaltenders with size, and Málek is no different. He measures 6-foot-4, 170 pounds, so the frame is there; he just needs to add weight. It’s hard to determine what kind of potential he has since he was such an off-the-board selection. He’ll return to VHK Vsetin for the 2021-22 season and remains a long-term project whose development will need plenty of time and patience.
3. Cole Brady
Brady was a fifth-round pick of the Devils at the 2019 Draft. He played for the Fargo Force in the USHL in his draft+1 season and posted a .903 SV% in 39 games. He made a move to the NCAA for 2020-21 and totaled a .910 SV% in 13 games for Arizona State, eventually taking over as their starting netminder by the end of the season. Brady will return to Arizona State for his sophomore season in 2021-22, where he should begin as their no. 1 option in net.
Like Málek, Brady is also tall and rangy, measuring at 6-foot-5, 181 pounds. He had to stand on his head some nights, as he faced a high volume of shots in a few of his starts for Arizona State last season. As is the case with Málek, Brady is a long-term project, but there’s no rush for him to get to the pros. He’ll likely spend the next two years in the NCAA, where he’ll get to fine-tune his game before the Devils entertain the idea of signing him to an entry-level deal.
2. Nico Daws
The Devils used the third-round pick they acquired in the Sami Vatanen trade at the 2020 Trade Deadline to draft Daws 84th overall at the 2020 Draft. He was coming off a very strong 2019-20 in the OHL with the Guelph Storm, where he had a league-best .924 SV% in 38 games played as a 19-year-old over-ager. The plan for him was to return to the OHL for 2020-21. But since the league canceled their season due to the COVID pandemic, he made a move to play in Europe for ERC Ingolstadt in the DEL — the top pro league in Germany.
Daws didn’t get much playing time for Ingolstadt, appearing in 10 games and posting an .898 SV%. Though he didn’t play much, the benefit of the move was him getting to play in a pro league and practicing with pro players. That should help with his transition to the AHL or ECHL, where he’ll play during the 2021-22 season after signing his entry-level deal with the Devils.
Like Brady and Málek, Daws also has good size at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. In this pre-draft report on Daws, Tony Ferrari noted his size and above-average mobility as strengths of his. It’s unfortunate Daws lost the chance to build on his previous OHL campaign, but the fact he got time to play against pros in Germany doesn’t make his 2020-21 a complete lost cause.
Because of the limited action with Ingolstadt, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Devils started Daws out in the ECHL to ease him back into playing regular minutes. Once he settles in, he should get some games in with the Utica Comets (AHL) this coming season. He was arguably the second- or third-best goalie prospect in the 2020 Draft behind Yaroslav Askarov and perhaps Drew Commesso. So the potential to be a 1B to Blackwood is there.
1. Akira Schmid
Schmid is the lone Devils’ goaltending prospect to have gotten significant playing time in 2020-21. He struggled with injuries in 2019-20 and only played in 13 games between the Omaha Lancers and Sioux City Musketeers (USHL). His SV% between the two teams was .891 and .888, respectively.
But with a full slate of health for 2020-21, Schmid resembled the promising prospect he was a couple of seasons ago. The Swiss netminder finished with a .921 SV% in 36 games, much closer to the .926 SV% he posted with the Lancers in his draft+1 season in 2018-19. Granted, he was one of the oldest players in the USHL this past season, but it was a return to form rather than a player breaking out as an over-ager. If you haven’t guessed by now, Schmid has good size at 6-foot-5, 205 pounds, but he’s also an incredibly athletic goaltender capable of making flashy saves.
Of the Devils’ goaltending prospects, Schmid is the oldest at 21 years old. While the ECHL is also an option, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him as the Comets’ no. 2 behind Scott Wedgewood to begin 2021-22. He’s the furthest along in his development and could be ready for AHL minutes, especially if it’s as a backup. Like Daws, Schmid also has the potential to be a 1B to Blackwood down the road. And with Bernier signed for two years, he’ll have time to mold himself in the minor leagues into a potential 1B.
Devils Have Depth but No Star Prospects
While the Devils do have goaltending depth in their pipeline, there’s no blue-chip talent who projects to be a star. That may seem concerning, but it shouldn’t be an issue if Blackwood rebounds from his COVID-related struggles. The biggest question mark the Devils have is finding a long-term 1B to Blackwood whenever they move on from Bernier.
Fortunately, they have a couple of prospects in Daws and Schmid who could be the answer to that question. There’s no need to rush either with Bernier signed through 2022-23, so they’ll have time to develop. Brady and Málek could be contributors one day, but they’re long-term projects who’ll need plenty of time and patience before even being mentioned for NHL gigs. And with the Devils’ NHL tandem set for the foreseeable future, they can let these prospects take their time in rising through the ranks.
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