It looked like the New Jersey Devils had solved their goaltending problem when they signed Corey Crawford to a two-year deal last offseason. Alas, things took a different route, as he had a change of heart and retired before the 2020-21 campaign began. That left the Devils back where they started, and they certainly felt the hole of not having Crawford as Mackenzie Blackwood’s primary backup this season.
Scott Wedgewood had some good moments stepping up after Crawford’s departure. But the overall results weren’t great, as he finished with a save percentage (SV%) of .900. Blackwood had his own struggles, finishing with a SV% of .902, though a rough bout with COVID surely affected his season. But with a whole offseason to get healthy and recover, he should be back to form when training camp begins in September.
With that said, he won’t be able to carry the load alone. Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald will have to find a capable 1B who can give Blackwood a night or two off when he needs it. Fortunately, there’s a deep group of unrestricted free agent goalies the Devils will be able to choose from come July 28. Let’s look at some potential fits and why Fitzgerald shouldn’t have much trouble strengthening the team’s depth in net.
Halak’s availability may depend on the status of Tuukka Rask and if he returns to the Boston Bruins. If Rask comes back for another season in Boston, that likely means Halak will hit free agency, as Jeremy Swayman seems to be ready to take over as Rask’s backup.
Though Halak finished with a .905 SV% in 2020-21, he’s been one of the more consistent backups in the NHL over the last few seasons. He’s totaled a .918 SV% since the start of the 2018-19 season across 90 games played. His goals saved above average (GSAA) of 20.73 ranks 14th-best in the league over that stretch, while his goals saved above expected (GSAx) of 5.01 is 19th-best.
The key for the Devils will be determining if Halak’s 2020-21 was a one-off or if it’s the beginning of a decline in his play. He finished with a GSAA of -1.21 and a GSAx of -7.36, his worst season since 2017-18 when he was with the New York Islanders. He recently turned 36 years old, so you can’t rule out decline. But if the Devils believe he can bounce back, he should be an affordable option to sign behind Blackwood. His cap hit on his most recent deal with the Bruins was $2.7 million, and he shouldn’t cost much more than that to sign this summer.
With the emergence of Alex Nedeljkovic in Carolina, that probably means one of James Reimer or Mrazek’s days with the Hurricanes are numbered. If Mrazek finds himself as a UFA, he could be one of the best fits for the Devils to back up Blackwood.
Mrazek played in just 12 games this season after having thumb surgery in early February, but he still put up some impressive totals. He finished with a SV% of .923 and had a GSAx of 10.73, the latter of which ranked 5th-best in the league. His GSAx of 18.46 since the start of the 2018-19 season ranks 4th-best in the entire NHL. His performance has been worth a wins above replacement (WAR) of 7 over that stretch, the 16th-best mark in the league.
Mrazek’s value may have taken a bit of a hit because of him having played in only 12 games, but he clearly can still play. At 29 years old, he’s a bit younger than some other UFA options and has shown he can handle a workload of playing 30-40 games a season. His most recent contract with the Hurricanes came with a cap hit of $3.125 million. A two to three-year deal at a similar price could be a good bit of business to fill the void left behind Blackwood after Crawford retired.
Sergei Bobrovsky may be the big money goalie in Florida, but it’s Chris Driedger who’s been the Panthers’ best netminder the last two seasons. He’s totaled a SV% of .931, granted we’re talking a sample size of only 35 games played and 34 starts. Still, his play doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Here’s how his advanced stats stack up on a year-to-year basis:
In addition to those impressive numbers, Driedger’s even-strength SV% of .940 ranks first in the league over the last two seasons (min. 500 minutes played). Even with the small sample size, there’s no denying how good he’s been. And the data seems to suggest that it can continue beyond this season. Plus, he’s 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, and is athletic, a feature the Devils seem to prefer in their netminders.
With Spencer Knight coming up and Bobrovsky’s contract immovable, it seems likely Driedger hits free agency. His previous contract came with a cap hit of $850,000, but he will receive a significant pay raise from that number. The question is how much. The Devils have the money to pay up if he’s seeking something around $4 million annually, which is about what they gave Crawford. They can also sell Driedger, who’s 27 years old, on receiving more playing time than he did in Florida, which he’s earned.
Bernier has played on some bad Detroit Red Wings teams over the last few seasons. But somehow, through it all, he’s managed to post some very respectable numbers. He finished this past season with a .914 SV%, his highest mark since he had a .913 SV% with the Colorado Avalanche during the 2017-18 season.
Bernier has only seen his numbers improve since his first season with the Red Wings. He had a GSAx of -5.12 in 2018-19 but saw that increase to -0.44 a season later on a historically terrible Red Wings team. This past season, he finished with a GSAx of 1.8 and a GSAA of 5.66. During his three-year stint with the Red Wings, his play has been worth a WAR of 5. Considering how poor the Red Wings have been since he signed with them in July 2018, that’s pretty impressive.
If he reaches free agency, Bernier could be one of the Devils’ top targets. He may be 32 years old, but he’s showing no signs of decline. He’s a veteran presence who’ll be entering his 11th full NHL season in 2021-22. That could make him a good mentor for a young Blackwood, who’s still looking to establish himself as a true 1A. Bernier’s previous deal came with a cap hit of $3 million, and it may take a bit more than that to sign him this summer. But the Devils are flush with cap space and can pay him something similar to what they gave Crawford as well.
If there’s a poster child for the saying “goalies are voodoo,” Brossoit would be it. He had a fantastic 2018-19 then came crashing back to Earth a season later, only to fall somewhere in between this past season:
Brossoit’s 2020-21 stats could be a better indicator of the goalie he actually is. He’s not as good as he was in 2018-19, but he’s nowhere near as bad as he was a season later. He’s just somewhere in the middle, and the middle seems to be a perfectly capable backup netminder.
But the catch with Brossoit is there’s a smaller sample size of data to work with compared to someone like Bernier or Mrazek. Brossoit’s lack of playing time shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given how great Connor Hellebuyck has been for the Winnipeg Jets. But can he handle a 60/40 or 50/50 split with Blackwood, something the Devils are likely looking for this summer? That’s something Fitzgerald and his front office will have to determine.
If Brossoit hits free agency, he should be a relatively cost-effective option for the Devils. His previous contract with the Jets came with a cap hit of $1.5 million, and he shouldn’t cost much more than that as a UFA. He’s 28 years old, so if he’s looking for more than the one-year deal the Jets gave him last offseason, the Devils should be able to provide that if they think he’s a fit. There’s also the appeal of getting more playing time in New Jersey to consider too.
Options Plentiful for Devils
The Devils thought they had their 1B when they signed Crawford. Things didn’t work out, but they’re lucky this class of UFA goaltenders is a cut above last offseason’s. Of the five mentioned here, Bernier and Mrazek could be the best fits for the Devils, as they’re veteran presences and have handled a 1B role before. The same is true for Driedger, but if he’s looking to be a starter somewhere, he might be a bit too expensive for the Devils.
Whatever the case may be, Fitzgerald shouldn’t have trouble strengthening the team’s goaltending behind Blackwood. There are enough options in this free-agent class where they’re bound to come away with one that helps provide stability. And that should help ease the workload Blackwood desperately needs in 2021-22.
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Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey