The New Jersey Devils won’t name a starting goaltender to start the 2023-24 season.
Much of the offseason focus, for the fans at least, was on whether or not General Manager Tom Fitzgerald would upgrade the Devils goaltending or not. Premium goaltenders such as Connor Helleybuck and John Gibson were said to be available on the trade market. However, we’re well into training camp and the start of the preseason. No one has been brought in that will usurp Vitek Vanecek or Akira Schmid’s role.
Via free agency this summer, Erik Kallgren and Keith Kinkaid signed with New Jersey, adding to the depth of Tyler Brennan and Nico Daws who will remain out until around Christmas.
“We don’t know what exactly the (goalie) arrangement will be with the big team, therefore we don’t know what the arrangement will be in Utica. But, we’ll make sure to address and insulate knowing we won’t have Nico until (approaching Christmas),” Assistant General Manager Dan MacKinnon told the Daily Sentinel.
On Monday, Lindy Ruff explained that for the NHL club, he’ll need both Vanecek and Schmid all season.
“I’m just going to say that I think we’re going to be a team that needs two goaltenders,” Ruff explained. “It isn’t about who the starter is in Game One. It’s about two goaltenders winning us hockey games. It’s not about if you start Game One you’re the starter. I think if you look at the load that you face inside of a season, and how it unfolded last year, you need two goaltenders to win you hockey games. I think that’s the way we have to treat that.”
Vanecek was the backbone of the Devils for a few stretches in the 2022-23 regular season. The 27-year-old goaltender put together two separate stretches in which he won nine or more games in 10-game stretches. In his first preseason game on Monday, he wasn’t tested often, but when he was, Vanecek answered the call.
“I thought (Vanecek) was really under control,” Ruff explained after Monday night’s preseason game. “He made a couple of really big saves for us. The guy in alone in the first period when the guy walked in and he made a good glove save. A lot to like about how he played.”
It was a low-event first period for Vanecek. The Czech goaltender explained it’s preferable to see a little more action early on to dial into his game. However, Vanecek has been practicing mind over matter following last year’s postseason performance. It’s how he believes he’ll take his game to the next level.
“I’m trying to not think about anything,” Vanecek explained. “Just play and read the situation. Just play hockey.”
Schmid’s small, yet strong sample size in the 2022-23 regular season leads you to believe he’s a future starting goaltender for New Jersey. It’s possible that will happen as soon as this season. However, Ruff remains adamant that the Devils will need both him and Vanecek for the full 82-game stretch and beyond.
Schmid’s postseason clearly outshined Vanecek’s. The 23-year-old goaltender accrued a 4-4 record with a 2.13 GAA and .921 SV%. Those numbers greatly outshined Vanecek’s 4.64 GAA and .825 SV% in seven playoff games last year. However, Vanecek is hoping his new mentality will contribute to a stronger performance when games matter most.
One glaring factor in the Devils’ goaltending situation is Schmid’s waiver exemption. He can freely move up and down from NHL to AHL and back without New Jersey having to worry he’ll be claimed.
However, such things don’t weigh on Ruff’s mind. It’s not a factor to the Devils head coach and Schmid will be with the Devils full-time.
“No (his waiver exemption is) not a factor,” Ruff said. “We want the best goalies playing goal for us.”
The Devils have depth at the goaltending position but it’s clear the organization believes their best chance to win is with both Vanecek and Schmid. To start the 2023-24 regular season, the Devils won’t name a starting goaltender. The NHL continues to evolve into a two-goaltender league, so perhaps it’s for the best. However, a strong performance from one over the other could certainly change the hierarchy in New Jersey’s crease.