NEWARK–The team-centric focus in hockey has no room for goaltending woes to be the easy out. It’s like fatigue and injuries–it happens and you, the team, have to find a solution collectively. All of it, including off nights in net, are inevitable. But, there’s been times this season where the Devils own play has been careless and lackluster enough to force unrealistic expectations and unfair dependence on its goaltending.
And, they’ve paid dearly for it. Tuesday was just another tale in what has become a synopsis on the season, another that finds the Devils unable to take the next step forward. And no, Tuesday’s first period in the second half of a back-to-back home-and-home with Toronto, were the Leafs offensive onslaught produced four goals in the opening 15:31 of play, was not the final straw to reach this conclusion.
It was yet another certification that the kind of hockey the Devils have fallen back on has resigned them to subpar outcomes. An unsurprising result given the present tandem’s resumes entering the season: 12 combined starts (Jon Gillies) and one season removed from Junior-A hockey (Akira Schmid). With the news Wednesday, courtesy of Elliotte Friedman, that Mackenzie Blackwood will seek additional opinions on his heel injury, there is no internal help that can be expected to fall into the organization’s lap. This inexperienced duo projects to see even more playing time and that could get rather hairy.
“It just seems like everything is going in against us,” defenseman, Damon Severson said on Tuesday’s 7-1 final, where the Leafs were able to pour on goals and expose New Jersey’s carelessness. “The thing about that is we have to work even harder to make sure it doesn’t. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights where we won those battles when we needed to win them to make the necessary plays to get out of our zone.”
The sixth-straight regulation loss and ninth in their last 10 games haven’t been an outright feast for scorers the way it was for Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, who combined for 7 goals and 13 points in six periods against the Devils. Gillies, after all, allowed 5 goals on 58 shots versus the potent Lightning and Hurricanes less than a week ago. But, Tuesday felt more like the Jan. 25 5-1 affair with Dallas, that saw Schmid allow three goals on seven shots and a baffling 13-save outing for Blackwood at home, versus the Coyotes on Jan. 19. Goaltending, has shown its ability to unravel in the worst of times. The Devils, one of nine teams in the NHL at the time of writing this with a save percentage under 0.900, rank 31st in the league with 0.885–only the expansion Kraken are worse.
Nothing was going to change the tide of the NJ’s lackluster efforts, which made Alain Nasreddine’s mercy-pulling of Gillies both decent and unfair in the same sequence.
“I told the team I felt bad for Jonny (Gillies),” Nasreddine said. “Point-blank chance from the slot, it’s something we addressed. Breakdowns, turnovers–this is all the stuff we told the team you don’t want to do against the Maple Leafs. You can’t blame the goalies tonight. There’s sharp shooters and you give them chances from the slot, they’re going to make you pay. It wasn’t a fun game.”
And that extended to 38-year-old Jason Spezza, who broke the ice 2:13 into the game, left alone in front and setting the tone for the snowball ahead.
“We didn’t execute at all,” Nico Hischier said. “It’s just not the way you give yourself a chance to win games in this league, especially against a highly offensive team like the Leafs. Nothing we can really take from this game.”
And, what to do now as the team heads into the All Star break? Of course, the returned health of Dougie Hamilton will be welcomed, but clarity on Blackwood is unlikely to reveal itself over the weekend or weeks to follow the break. The once solid-three option for an NHL-involved Canadian Olympic team, appears to be dealing with a major hit at his career trajectory and the medical decisions ahead loom large.
Of course, you can bet the Devils pro scouting head, Jim Mill, has been watching Dryden McKay have a stellar senior season at Minnesota State University (Mankato). He’s small for the position at 5-foot-11, but has boasted the starting job in four years and ridiculous numbers along the way. From freshman to current senior season, here’s his GAA: 1.76; 1.31; 1.54; 1.33. His save percentage hasn’t dipped below 0.924. His 32 NCAA shutouts are six more than Ryan Miller, who owned the record coming into this season. The Devils added Al Santilli to the pro scouting staff earlier this season in an NCAA recruitment role. He’s New England-based, but McKay could be an organizational point of emphasis in the coming months.
Owen Savory, equally undersized (6-foot) is having a strong senior season as an undrafted soon-to-be NCAA free agent from UMass-Lowell, who also managed success with RPI in his freshman and sophomore seasons–no easy task. These are options Tom Fitzgerald must consider along with CHL overagers–Mack Guzda (OHL, Barrie). Especially versus the notion of parting away with assets for organizational depth in net.
That is, because while there’s a chance, it’s not a quick fix, nor is it a bandaid. It is the continued process of stability in net, something that has been a troubling, turned worrisome, turned epidemic-like issue for the franchise since Cory Schneider backstopped his butt off in three-straight seasons without any real goal support. It, along with the Devils tendencies to rely too heavily on its underprepared options, have been a collective undoing of their season.
Time seems to be out on the Devils campaign with 37 games left after the break–but, the organizational efforts from the net and beyond must be treated with equal urgency to buck the franchise’s follies.