The time is now to rest Vitek Vanecek
Alex Chauvancy dives into why the Devils' starter could benefit from a reduced workload down the stretch.
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By Alex Chauvancy (@AlexC_THW)
To say Vitek Vanecek has struggled lately would be an understatement. In his previous five starts, he has posted a save percentage of .821 and has given up nearly nine goals above expected.
Fortunately for the New Jersey Devils, their goaltending situation is leaps and bounds better than a season ago, meaning they can weather the storm of a goaltender struggling.
It also isn't a bad time for Vanecek to be hitting a wall. The Devils are 42-16-6 and have a nine-point cushion on the New York Rangers for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Stranger things have happened, but the odds of the Rangers making up nine points in 18 games isn't all that likely.
That means the Devils can ease Vanecek's workload for now, especially since he's already approaching a career-high in starts with about a month to go in the 2022-23 regular season. But make no mistake; they'll need him to pick it up before the playoffs begin.
Schmid & Blackwood can pick up the slack
The Devils wouldn't be in second place in the Metro without Vanecek. Before this five-game stretch, he was 24-5-3 and had a .917 SV%. He had stopped 13.64 goals expected, ranked tenth in the NHL among all goaltenders. His SV% has since dropped to .907, while his GSAx of 5.1 now ranks 31st in the league, placing him right behind Mackenzie Blackwood and Akira Schmid.
The good news is that the Devils have a potential high-end netminder developing in Schmid. Although goaltender is the most volatile position in hockey and the hardest to project long-term, it's difficult not to be impressed by Schmid this season.
The sample size is small (13 appearances and 10 starts), but Schmid has posted a .925 SV% with a 6.05 GSAx. That ranks 29th in the NHL, just ahead of Vanecek and Blackwood.
It's not like he has faced weak opponents in his starts, either. He's made starts against a high-powered offensive team in the Buffalo Sabres, the Dallas Stars, the Vegas Golden Knights, and Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
Lindy Ruff hasn't had an issue turning to Schmid with Vanecek struggling lately. He pulled Vanecek with 18:30 to go in regulation against the Colorado Avalanche when Vanecek allowed five goals and 3.82 goals above expected. Most notably, he opted for Schmid in a 3-2 win against the Capitals on Thursday.
That says a couple of things to me. Despite throwing the defense under the bus after the loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ruff opts for Schmid against the Capitals, Vanecek's former team and a division rival. Ruff rarely criticizes his goalies publicly, but he seems to realize Vanecek is fighting it right now.
It also shows he trusts Schmid. And why shouldn't he? When CJ or I tweet about Schmid having "it," that Capitals game is one example. He made a couple of crucial stops in overtime and didn't let a puck get past him in the shootout.
In relief of Vanecek in the Avalanche game, Schmid made all 12 saves and stopped 0.69 goals above expected to preserve a 7-5 win. He seems to be coming up clutch in big moments right now.
Though he'll likely be the odd man out once Blackwood returns from his most recent injury, playing in meaningful games in March could serve Schmid well in his development; especially since he doesn't 23 until May and looks like he could be a true starter down the road.
Giving Schmid some starts now also benefits Vanecek. Whether he starts tonight against the Montreal Canadiens or tomorrow against the Carolina Hurricanes, it'll tie his career-high of 39 he set a season ago. He'll do so with just over a month left in the regular season. A bit of fatigue could be setting in, so it's important to manage his minutes in a month where the Devils play nearly every other day.
However, the Devils do need to get Vanecek going before the playoffs begin. It's better that he goes through a slump now than in April, however, they'll want him confident heading into a potential first-round showdown with the Rangers. He is going to be the guy, at least to start that series. Right now, he's in the midst of his worst stretch of the season.
While some defensive "struggles" may be to play, it's not like the Devils have gotten outplayed in their last five games with Vanecek in net. In four of his previous five starts, the Devils have posted an expected goals percentage of 60 percent or above. The lone outlier was the Arizona Coyotes tilt, and it was still 53.05 percent.
Three of those five contests were wins, but that's because the Devils put up plenty of goals. There's no doubt there were defensive miscues that put Vanecek in between a rock and a hard place. That said, it's not all on the defense when your SV% is .821. For what it's worth, Schmid has a .940 SV% in his previous four outings.
Fortunately, the Devils can manage Vanecek’s workload with their place in the standings. They don't have to feed him to the wolves when his game isn't at its best with Schmid impressing.
Blackwood has been solid this season and should be able to help if he returns for the stretch run, too. That puts the Devils in a prime position with their goaltending for the final four to five weeks of 2022-23, and hopefully, it resets Vanecek when the Devils need him most in mid-April.
Advanced stats from Evolving-Hockey
Makes you appreciate the consistency and durability of Marty in the golden years. I definitely took for granted Marty's ability to play like 80 percent of the games in the season and not have his game drop off. GOAT
I to think it's a good idea to get him some rest. The plan this szn was supposed to be somewhere around 50/50, 55/45, or at worst case scenario 60/40. He's had 38 starts in 64 played. That's right at 60% but he's also played in 41 games. If he plays in 9 of the 18 games left he'll have played in 50 games. I'd rather see him get some rest right now with only 1-2 starts a week until April starts. That leaves 7 games in 2 weeks of April to get tuned in for the playoffs. The way Schmid has played we'll probably win more games with him playing right now as well. I feel really comfortable going into the playoffs with Schmid & Vitek. I don't trust Mac
We always seem to have an excuse with Mac of we didn't play well in front of him or nobody could've saved the ones he let in. Good goalies make it look easy. They're in the right position to make saves look easy. They don't give up rebounds which is where all the scrambling comes from. They play the puck acting like a 3rd Dman. Mac has not made it look easy this szn where Vitek & Schmid have