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From suspect to strength in 7 months: Where the Devils’ intriguing goaltending situation stands

July 22nd, 2019 by Corey Masisak - The Athletic

Seven months ago, the Devils’ outlook at the goaltending position, in both the short and long term, was a mess.

Cory Schneider was pulled from a game Dec. 14 against Vegas and wouldn’t play again for nearly two months. He had the worst save percentage in the NHL and hadn’t won a regular-season game in 2018.

Keith Kinkaid helped New Jersey rally to win that game, but after a strong three weeks to start the season, finished with a sub-.900 save percentage. The Devils then traded him to Columbus in February. Eddie Lack was out for the season with a torn ACL.

Evan Cormier, a 2016 draft pick, was playing for a Canadian college team after the Devils declined to sign him by the June 15 deadline. Gilles Senn, a 2017 pick, had spent most of the season as a backup in Switzerland.

Akira Schmid, a 2018 selection, had spent a month not playing for anyone when a WHL team cut him after one game. Schmid was on his third league by mid-December and had won two games for Omaha before leaving for the world junior championships.

Amid the doom and gloom, there was a glimmer of hope. Mackenzie Blackwood, drafted in 2015, had played pretty well for Binghamton and was about to join Kinkaid for his first taste of the NHL. But even that came with the caveat that Blackwood’s results the year before were poor and included a demotion to the ECHL.

So much has changed in a short period of time. Goaltending went from being a major flaw for the Devils at the NHL level to a strength in the second half of the season.

Blackwood had a great start to his NHL career. Schneider returned and looked more like the goaltender he was pre-hip injury, which was one of the best in the league. Schmid dominated the USHL after world juniors. Senn earned more playing time and helped HC Davos avoid catastrophic relegation.

Injuries to Schneider and Lack left the organization scrambling for help, opening up an opportunity for Cormier in Binghamton that revitalized his professional career.

“It was a crazy year,” Cormier said. “There is no other way to put it.”

He was talking about his personal journey, but that goes for the entire organization at the position. The sample sizes for Schneider and Blackwood were small, so there will be plenty of skepticism surrounding New Jersey’s goaltending as next season approaches.

Still, the Devils now boast a stable of young goaltenders, with several options to be the long-term successor to Schneider. There’s no high-profile phenom like Florida’s Spencer Knight or Washington’s Ilya Samsanov, but they have one of the deepest collections of goaltending prospects in the league.

From 1983-90, the Devils drafted six goalies that played at least 300 games in the NHL, including the guy whose statue greets you outside Prudential Center, with the 20th pick in 1990. They have drafted one goalie who reached the 300-game mark since, and that was Chris Mason in 1995. None of those games came in a Devils uniform after New Jersey declined to sign him two years later.

The franchise that drafted Chris Terreri, Sean Burke, Kirk McLean and Martin Brodeur basically went a quarter-century without drafting and developing an NHL starting goaltender.

Blackwood became the first goaltender drafted by the organization since 1990 to play more than six games in a season for the Devils since Scott Clemmensen racked up 40 in 2008-09 when Brodeur was injured.

Here’s a breakdown of every goalie the Devils drafted between 1991-2014:

That’s 14 goalies in 24 drafts who combined to play a total of 76 games for the Devils.

While Brodeur was crafting his Hall of Fame career, it didn’t matter much that New Jersey had lost its touch with identifying and developing young goaltenders. When he reached the twilight of his career, former general manager Lou Lamoriello used the No. 9 pick in the 2013 draft to land Schneider, after years of failing to find Brodeur’s successor through the draft.

Ray Shero’s tenure began just before the 2015 draft, when the Devils selected Blackwood. New Jersey has selected a goaltender every year since he arrived, and have seemed to operate under the philosophy that bigger is better.

Drafting a goalie every year can lead to a logjam. The Devils didn’t sign Cormier last summer because they thought Senn might come to North America and also landed one of the top college free agents, North Dakota’s Cam Johnson.

That meant three guys (Blackwood, Johnson and Lack) were going to compete for two spots, and adding a fourth didn’t make sense. The Devils haven’t added a veteran to replace Lack this offseason.

If they don’t, Senn and Cormier will battle for playing time with Binghamton while Schmid and 2019 pick Cole Brady play in the USHL (Brady is scheduled to spend a year with Fargo in the USHL before going to Arizona State in 2020-21).

Schmid should be ready for a contract next offseason, at which point he could join Senn and Cormier in a competition that would end up with one of them in the ECHL.

Schneider has three seasons left on his contract and Blackwood has a head start on that group to be his successor. A lot can happen in one hockey season at the position, though. Just look at the most recent one.

While Senn might have been tempted to sign with New Jersey last summer, he had one year left on his contract with HC Davos at home in Switzerland. He decided to honor that deal, but he also told the club it would be his last before joining the Devils.

Davos didn’t take the news very well. It didn’t help that Joren Van Pottelberghe, a Red Wings draft pick and Senn’s partner in net, had also hinted that he would be leaving for Detroit.

Davos responded by signing NHL veteran Anders Lindback in mid-September and installing him as the No. 1 goaltender.

“They got mad and just got another goalie,” Senn said. “Then it was really frustrating. It was something I learned much from. That happens a lot in Switzerland. I accepted the challenge, and at the end I think I played really good.

“For sure it was frustrating at first, but I also had more time to practice. I worked a lot more with the goalie coach and worked on some things. Our team really struggled bad at the beginning of the season. I knew my time would come.”

Davos is the most successful franchise in Swiss hockey, having won the NLA title 31 times. The club hadn’t missed the NLA playoffs (top eight teams in a 12-team league qualify) since 1993, the longest streak in the country.

This past season was a disaster for Davos from the start. The coach, Arno Del Curto, resigned in late November of his 23rd season. The team spent the entire campaign at the bottom of the standings, and was forced into a prolonged fight to avoid being relegated to the second division.

Senn helped the club stay put, games that might prove to be a valuable experience for a young goaltender.

“It’s a tough, tough time,” he said. “When you’re bad and losing and you might go into the second league, it’s not just bad for you, it’s bad for the whole city and for the club. So much money is going to be lost. Mentally, that’s really tough. It’s not just a sport then.”

Senn is from the same canton (mini-states) in the southern part of Switzerland as Devils center Nico Hischier. They both played for Visp youth teams in 2009-10 and 2010-11 before Senn left for Davos, and even spent time on the same team despite Senn being three years older.

They’ve remained friends, even going on a vacation to Germany together earlier this offseason. Senn missed out on a subsequent trip to Croatia because of development camp. He also got to play with Nico’s older brother, Luca, this past season after he joined Davos from SC Bern.

When his season was over, Senn came over to Binghamton for a couple of days to work with Devils goaltending development coach Scott Clemmensen. He’ll likely have a more extended stay there next season.

“We don’t know how much time he’ll take,” Devils assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be a different game. Playing in Binghamton is tough for goalies because of the size of the rink, the shorter neutral zone, corners are a little more shallow. The pucks come to the net a little quicker. We believe he can be an NHL goalie.”

It was about 10 p.m. on deadline day in 2018 when Cormier got a call from his agent and found out, officially, that the Devils were not going to sign him. He had been at the draft two years prior, taken all the photos and attended development camps in Newark.

The relationship felt akin to a couple who casually dates for two years, then one party decides to break it off when it’s time to get serious. Cormier found another opportunity the next day — the Panthers called and wanted him to come to their development camp.

He went, and returned for training camp in September, but then went home without a contract. Florida didn’t have room for him, either. That led Cormier to the University of Guelph, but he hadn’t given up on his dream.

“Starting out in school was a little disappointing for me,” Cormier said. “It’s not where I wanted to be. I just accepted it and tried to work as hard as I could.”

He didn’t have a goalie coach at Guelph, so at one point he called Clemmensen for some pointers. Fitzgerald was scrambling in mid-December because Blackwood was moving up to New Jersey and he needed another goaltender for Binghamton.

The Devils added one of Adirondack’s goalies on a tryout, but Clemmensen told him that Cormier had called. That led to an amateur tryout contract for Cormier, and he made his AHL debut on Dec. 29.

“It hit me in Belleville,” Cormier said, referring to his debut in which he made 21 saves in relief. “That’s also where I played my first junior game. When we were there, I was looking around like, ‘Wow, I made it to this level.’ I’ve tried to soak it in every day and have fun. I’m playing pro hockey. What else could you want?”

Cormier left Guelph for Christmas break and never returned. He won four of his first five starts, and went from an ATO to an AHL contract and, finally on Feb. 24, the NHL entry-level contract the Devils had declined to give him in June.

“I’m just really grateful that I had the opportunity to come back and play with these guys again,” he said. “Now, I’m just ready to take the next step and really push the guys up top and get more experience and starts in the AHL and really develop. I want to get to the NHL. That’s my goal now.”
That’s the goal for Senn, as well. And for Schmid, who also had a crazy ride this past season but found a place where he could settle in and succeed. Once any of them get to the Devils, they could end up competing with Blackwood, who had his own long journey before he was an “overnight success” last year.

The Devils may have rectified a quarter-century long problem and returned to their roots of finding future NHL goalies in the draft. There is certainly a queue forming behind Schneider in the New Jersey goaltending pipeline.

“All good problems to have,” Fitzgerald said.

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