The New Jersey Devils wouldn’t name a starting goaltender at the start of this season. Up until Sunday against the Minnesota Wild, it’s been a pretty even split between Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid. That was until head coach Lindy Ruff went back to Vanecek for the second game in a row this weekend. It was the first time this season one of the two goaltenders started two games in a row. Despite Ruff only deploying this once, a closer look at the circumstances begs the question. Will Vanecek claim the majority share of the Devils starting goaltender duties?
Vanecek was excellent in the Devils’ 4-3 win over the Wild on Sunday. The Czech goaltender stopped 31 of 34 pucks which included a big 12 stops on the power play.
“A lot of times they say your goalie is the best penalty killer,” Ruff explained. “He had to make a couple of big saves. I thought early, the save on (Kirill) Kaprizov, the cross-ice pass right at the start of the first period when (the defense broke down) was a great save. He gave us four or five really good saves at key times.”
Sunday’s contest was the kind of goaltending performance that we haven’t seen from either of the Devils goaltenders so far this season. According to MoneyPuck, Vanecek finished Sunday night’s game with a -0.12 goals saved above expected. That number seems like a deflated number, perhaps due to all of Minnesota’s power plays. However, the Devils’ netminder made some pretty big stops, including a sprawling stop on Marcus Johansson on the penalty kill.
Incredible sprawling save by Vitek Vanecek! 😮 pic.twitter.com/PE5ldM7IHk
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 29, 2023
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Wild were expected to score a little over two goals on their six power play chances. Vanecek was certainly part of the effort that kept them off the board, which was literally the difference in a one-goal game.
“He’s so solid for us,” John Marino explained. “When (Vanecek) plays like that we’re able to get some momentum. If the team kind of collapses like that and he makes those big saves, we’re able to swing (momentum) the other way and capitalize on our chances.”
When asked if it gives the team more confidence when they get goaltending like Sunday, Marino responded, “Yeah, absolutely. We can make more plays, hold onto the puck a little longer, stuff like that.”
Vanecek is now 4-2-0 on the season with a 3.24 GAA and .895 SV%. That’s certainly not great. However, the Devils, Sunday aside, haven’t particularly been great in front of him to start the season.
As for Schmid, he hasn’t necessarily come flying out of the gate, either. The Swiss goaltender is 1-0-1 through three starts with a 4.07 GAA and .863 SV%. Typically, Schmid is described as a calm goaltender in the crease. The saying in the locker room is “he has no pulse.”
It’s clear Schmid hasn’t been what he was in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring, however. There was a clear confidence in the 23-year-old goaltender’s game that hasn’t made itself present through three starts this season. As a result, Schmid has hardly been able to make the big saves New Jersey needs in order to secure wins. In fact, the Devils had to score five goals against the New York Islanders in Schmid’s only win this season. The Devils goaltender accrued -0.44 goals saved above expected in the performance.
Ruff explained that the Devils started Vanecek two games in a row as part of a plan he laid out with his coaching staff. Said plan consisted of how to deploy their goaltenders during New Jersey’s four-game week. The Devils head coach didn’t make mention as to whether or not the consecutive starts were because of Vanecek’s strong performance against the Buffalo Sabres on Friday.
However, Vanecek was open on Sunday about the fact that it’s beneficial for him to play as much as he can to see as many pucks as possible. Although the team hasn’t admitted it, Vanecek has been stronger than Schmid for the Devils thus far, even if only by a slim margin. Perhaps that’s all it’ll take, however. New Jersey hasn’t exactly dominated the way they did in 2022-23. Therefore, they’ll need their best players night in and night out. As of now, that’s Vanecek as opposed to Schmid.
The plan was for Vanecek and Schmid to split the load 50/50 this season. Yet, a couple of more performances like Sunday’s, to an extent, Friday’s, could see Vanecek begin to take the reigns in the Devils crease claiming the majority of starts. Especially if the players in front of him feel he’s a key factor in wins.
“Vitek had a great game,” Jesper Bratt explained. “He came up with so many key saves at the right times when we needed them. There were a couple of chances that they got late in the periods. If those would have gone in, they would have been game-changing moments so, he came up huge and played a huge role in that win.”