The Devils biggest issue this season has been sub par goaltending. Let’s look at some possible options to address that moving forward.
The goaltending woes the Devils have had so far this year are unlikely to be fixed before October. Johnathan Bernier is 33 years old and recovering from a pretty serious hip surgery. Mackenzie Blackwood has battled heel injuries this year but the young net minder has shown flashes of greatness at times in his young career. Despite his struggles the past two seasons (58 games), Blackwood showed in his first two seasons, (60 games) that he is incredibly talented. All things considered, the Devils will once again be heading into the offseason with a question mark over their goaltending situation. The ideal scenario would be that both Bernier and Blackwood return to the best versions of themselves next season. However, lower body injuries are obviously very concerning for a goalie and it is still uncertain how well either will be able to play next season.
The other goaltenders currently in the organization do not appear to be the Devils solution in goal, at least not yet. Nico Daws and Akira Schmid were drafted by the Devils in the 3rd round in 2020 and the 5th round in 2018 respectively. Both have been playing their first professional seasons in North America this year, mostly with the Utica Comets of the AHL. Both have been stellar performers for the Comets, one of the AHL’s best teams. Daws and Schmid have each gotten some playing time in the NHL with the Devils this season and neither one has looked particularly impressive. Like all Devils goalies this year, they have save percentages below .900 and goals against averages over 3. This is not cause for any serious concern as neither one has celebrated their 22nd birthday or played a full pro season in North America yet. However, I think it is obvious that neither Daws nor Schmid are ready for full time duty in the NHL yet and they may need another full year or two in Utica before they are ready to come up to the NHL full time. As far as the 2022-2023 NHL season goes, Daws and Schmid should not be expected to help the Devils make the Stanley Cup playoffs. This means that, once again, the Devils will very likely be looking outside the organization for goaltending help in the off season. The Devils have signed veteran goalies in each of the last two offseasons in Corey Crawford and Johnathan Bernier. Crawford retired before ever playing a game for New Jersey and Bernier needed season ending hip surgery after just 10 games. Who might the Devils target this year?
One intriguing option is Darcey Kuemper. Kuemper currently makes $4.5 million with Colorado and is a free agent at season’s end. Kuemper will be 32 years old when next season starts, which is younger than both Crawford and Bernier were when they were signed by New Jersey. This season, Kuemper has played 34 games, stopped over 92% of the shots he has faced, and posts a GAA of 2.38. Now, these numbers could be slightly misleading because he plays with a stacked roster in front of him with the Avalanche. However, in 27 games for the Coyotes last year, he still had a GAA of 2.56 and a save percentage of .907. The year prior to that, 2019-2020, also with Arizona, Kuemper had fantastic numbers in 29 games played. His GAA was 2.22 and his save percentage was .928. In each of the last three seasons, Kuemper has been vastly superior to the goaltenders the Devils have had this season. At 31 years of age, with 274 games of NHL experience, Kuemper has proven he is capable of being a starter and could push Blackwood to be the best version of himself to earn anytime in the net. The problem is, Kuemper is currently making $4.5 million and would need a pay raise to go from a cup contender to rebuilding team hoping to take the next step. The Devils have cap space for now, but paying Kuemper north of 6 million dollars eats into that, especially when you consider the fact that Jesper Bratt is due to get a large extension this offseason in terms of both term and salary. Kuemper may be the best free agent available, but I don’t think it realistic that the Devils would pay him the money and term he would demand in order to bring him to New Jersey.
2018 Stanley Cup Champion Braden Holtby is entering unrestricted free agent status at the end of the year. The 32 year old, once elite, Holtby struggled through the end of the is time in Washington and his one year in Vancouver but has regained some of his old form this year in Dallas. Holtby has played 23 games this season and has a goals against average of 2.78 and a save percentage of .912. While neither are eye popping numbers, both are still far ahead of the stats put up by any Devils goalie this season. However, in each of the two previous seasons, Holtby’s GAA has been above 3 while his save percentage has been below .900. If the Devils believe that the 32 year old can consistently play as he has this year, and not the way he did from 2019-2021, he may be worth a short contract. Holtby currently makes two million dollars so the Devils may be able to lure him to the Garden State for around $3 million a season.
This last option is a slightly less conventional one. Strauss Mann played goalie at the University of Michigan from 2018-2021. In those three seasons, he played a total of 77 games and really stood out in the 19-20 and 20-21 seasons. In those two years, Mann’s save percentage was over .930 and his GAA was under 1.90. Despite these impressive numbers in the Big 10 of the NCAA, Mann went undrafted and unsigned in North America at the conclusion of his last season at Michigan. The 23 year old Greenwich Connecticut native has played this season in the Swedish hockey league. In 16 games in Sweden so far, he has a save percentage of .921 a GAA of 2.00. Mann also played very well in two games for Team USA at the 2022 Olympics against Canada and Slovakia. In the 4-2 win over Canada, Mann stopped 35 of 37 shots he faced and in the loss to Slovakia, Mann stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced in regulation and over time. Mann then stopped Slovakia’s first three shooters in the shootout but that wasn’t enough to carry Team USA into medal contention. Mann is a talented young net minder that is yet to be signed by an NHL club. The Devils could bring him in on an ELC to have him compete not only with Blackwood and Bernier, but also with Daws and Schmid for AHL time. The Devils could have a trio of talented goalies under 24 battling for playing time in both the AHL and NHL.
It still remains to be seen how the Devils will, yet again, attempt to address their goaltending problems. It is still very possible that New Jersey will go into next season with Bernier and Balckwood in the NHL and Daws and Schmid in the AHL. However, once again, there are options outside of the organization to explore. Personally, I don’t care who is net for the Devils, I just want them to stop the damn puck. Hey, maybe the Devils can see if Duncan the Walrus from Geico is available. After all, he only gets paid in fish… Very manageable under the salary cap.