Newark, NJ – During the 2022-23 regular season, it appeared the New Jersey Devils solved their goaltending issues. General manager Tom Fitzgerald traded for goaltender Vitek Vanecek and Lindy Ruff ran him in tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. Vanecek eventually took over starting goaltending duties and went on to have an excellent season in which he accrued 33 wins while posting a 2.45 GAA and .911 SV%. However, the Stanley Cup Playoffs weren’t kind to Vanecek, raising questions about whether New Jersey could win when the stakes were highest while he was in the crease.
Akira Schmid burst onto the scene when Blackwood couldn’t stay healthy. Blackwood’s time with the Devils is numbered. As for Schmid, many believe he’s the goaltender of the future in New Jersey. In a small sample size, he played 18 regular-season games, winning nine and posting a 2.13 GAA and .922 SV%. He even helped New Jersey defeat rival New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs winning four of his five starts. Yet, the first two rounds managed to expose holes in his game as well.
That brings us to today where Fitzgerald has entered the Devils in the Connor Hellebuyck sweepstakes.
However, the Vezina Trophy finalist wants to be traded somewhere that he will sign an extension. His ask per season is similar to Andrei Vasilevskiy’s $9.5 million.
We checked in with former NHL goaltender and DailyFacoff analyst, Mike McKenna, on the Devils’ goaltending situation.
Looking at Vitek Vanecek’s season, was it a result of his own performance or a strong team playing in front of him?
“I think you saw the Vitek Vanecek that everybody expected to see that’s largely done that with the Washington Capitals the past couple of seasons,” McKenna stated. “The only difference for me is that he did it in more games this year. The net was largely his with the Devils this season. I really liked his play in the first half. It waned a little bit in the second half.”
“I think Vanecek is a good NHL goaltender and you saw that this year. He’s capable of winning games. He had a better team in front of him in New Jersey than he ever had with Washington before. Especially during the regular season. I think that he brought a layer of consistency to the Devils that was lacking for the past several years.”
Is Vanecek a goaltender the Devils can win a championship with?
“Well, if that’s going to happen, they’re going to have to be a better team defensively and all around when it comes to playoff time,” McKenna states. “You (need to) find that added layer. Vitek for me is a good goaltender. I think that now you look at what happened the last two seasons with Aiden Hill for the Vegas Golden Knights and Darcy Kuemper with the Colorado Avalanche and it’s easy to think ‘Well, any team can just buy a goalie of $3 or $5 million and win a Stanley Cup.'”
“I don’t think that’s the case. The Golden Knights were an incredible defensive team, the best in the league. Them and the Carolina Hurricanes. And then the Colorado Avalanche were just overwhelmingly good the year before. I still think goaltending for most teams in the NHL to win a Stanley Cup needs to be very, very good. And the numbers on Vitek pair out that for him to get to that elite level, there’s still work to do. Does he have it in him?”
“What I like about him is his trajectory. He’s always had to work for everything. He spent a lot of time in the American Hockey League before he got his first real break. So he’s been on an upward curve, but has that curve flattened out? And if it’s flattened out at this current level, he’s got to be better in the playoffs. But I think he was also battling something injury-wise that maybe that it prevented him from performing at his best and if that was the case, then maybe we didn’t see the full Vitek Vanecek in the playoffs this season.”
What did you make of Akira Schmid’s 18-game regular season?
“I like Schmid,” said McKenna. “The first thing that stands out is his size. I do think that he’s fairly dynamic in terms of how he reads pucks. He’s willing to use his hands. I don’t think he’s the most explosive goaltender in the NHL, but he’s got a very good systematic approach to the game. And I think when you look at what he’s done in Utica, it shows very well for the future.”
“He’s, to me, a goaltender who is probably still a year away from reaching full maturity over here in North America, especially considering the came from the USHL. He didn’t play major Junior and didn’t play college hockey. He’s still getting his feet underneath him. The fact that Schmid is waiver exempt probably makes it pretty easy for the Devils next year to figure out what they’d like to do. I would imagine Schmid goes back to Utica and then there will be another goaltender in the mix for the Devils. But watching how Schmid played in the playoffs gives me a lot of hope for the future for him. As his reads continue to improve, as he continues to build the explosiveness that comes with the game in North America, especially laterally, I can see him being a really good NHL goaltender.”
So, he’s better served going back to the American Hockey League in 2023-24?
“I think another year in the American Hockey League and you’re probably looking at him being ready if he asked me,” McKenna said. “Last year was kind of tough because he was up and down. That’s not an easy thing to do. You don’t get to play as many games as you’d like to, even though he still factored in by the end of the year, just about 50 games. If you give him one more year to go carry the mail and get called up when necessary because injuries happen nowadays in the NHL, to me that’s the right trajectory. He’s not far away. If he performs well in the American Hockey League and at the NHL level next year, depending on where he is, I think there’s a very good chance you see him as a full-time NHL goalie from the start of the season in 2024-25.”
As you’ve seen, the Devils have checked in on Connor Hellebuyck. Is that a move they need to make?
“If they can get Connor Hellebuyck at $6 million next year, that’s great,” Mckenna explained. “But the problem is that Hellebuyck wants to stick around wherever he’s going to go from what I’ve gathered. And if that’s the case, Hellebuyck wants $9.5 million. I don’t think he fits what the Devils are looking to do from a salary cap standpoint, even though knowing that the salary cap is likely to rise in coming years once we get past this next season and the players paid off the escrow that’s currently still in place from the COVID short years.”
What’re the positives and negatives of possibly acquiring Hellebuyck?
“Hellebuyck is going to be 30-31 years old,” McKenna said. “By the end of any contract, you’re looking at him being 35, 36, 37 years old. There’s a worry there with the amount of mileage he’s put on his body as well and knowing that Schmid is knocking on the door. So what it comes down to for me is, if you could get Hellebuyck as an $8 million goaltender for the Devils, I’d be very interested. But at $9-$9.5 million and knowing that Jesper Bratt just signed a new deal, Dawson Mercer needs a deal that’s gonna pay him $5 or $6 million, you’ve also got Luke Hughes and (Simon) Nemec coming on the back end. And then we’re not done yet. They’re still trying to keep Meier in the fold here.”
“That’s a lot. For me, if the Bratt deal hadn’t come down, if Meier isn’t extended, it almost becomes Meier or Hellebuyck. As a goalie, I would say go get the goaltending. But that doesn’t seem to be what has fit so far. So I’m curious to see what plays out.”
So if you’re Fitzgerald, do you run with some combination of Vanecek, Schmid, & Blackwood, or make the Hellebuyck acquisition?
“Well, I don’t think Blackwood will be back with the Devils next year,” Mckenna said. “I would even cast that from all thought right now at this point. If you go to Hellebuyck now you’re looking at having $9 million bucks in goaltenders next season, regardless. That’s a pretty heavy toll. But I’d sure like Hellebuyck and Vanecek as a combination. If you’re in winnow mode, that’s a good thing. That’s where you start to look down the road.”
“The one way Fitzgerald could make this work if he decides to go the goalie route is to pick up Hellebuyck, you extend him even though he wants a lot of money. If you’re willing to pay that, you’re going to have a Schmid at a pretty reasonable deal down the road too. So, maybe that’s your way out of it. But again, this is going to be tough. I actually think that the Devils are more likely to go after a proven veteran NHL goalie like Semyon Varlamov or even Jonas Korpisalo to play in tandem with Vanecek and see what happens.”
“To me, goalies cost between $3 and $5 million for the most part. $3 to $6 million if you want to go even more ballpark. I think that could be serviceable. But then again, when you get to playoffs, you still need somebody that you can count on. And that’s where, in my eyes, I think you’re still hoping that in a year or two it might be Schmid that’s taking that. Or again that Vanecek is healthy enough to be able to give you the goaltending needed for a lot of the regular season.”
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