There has been no shortage of praise for young New Jersey Devils netminder Mackenzie Blackwood over the past two years. The 24-year-old goalie has already posted back-to-back seasons with a save percentage of .915 or better over a combined 70 appearances. Last year, he got the results to boot, recording a 2214-8 record – a .591 points percentage versus the Devils’ .493 points percentage on the year. Yet, New Jersey still went out and signed veteran keeper Corey Crawford to a substantial two-year deal this off-season. The move signaled that the Devils do not believe that Blackwood is ready to be a workhorse solo act just yet. So, now that Crawford has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the team, what comes next for the Devils in net? New Jersey trusts Blackwood to carry the load in an emergency, but the club does not want to start off a fresh season already short-handed.
How should the Devils replace Crawford?
Although Crawford is currently gone, there is still no word as to the reasoning nor any projected timeline for his return. Rather than make a move, the Devils could simply look at their internal options to pair with Blackwood for the time being and hope that Crawford’s absence is not too lengthy. Veteran Scott Wedgewood made his return to New Jersey as a free agent this off-season and could be the top option to back up Blackwood as things currently stand. Wedgewood, 28, has 24 games of NHL experience with middling results. He also has considerable AHL experience, but after years as a top workhorse in the league, his numbers have tailed off of late. Wedgewood would be a safe choice given his familiarity with the NHL game, but lacks upside. On the flip side, there is Gilles Senn. Senn, 24, is only in his second season in North America, but already played two games with New Jersey last season. The Swiss wunderkind has been playing games at a top pro level as a teen as well. While he is not yet a polished product and is still adjusting to the competition level of the NHL and AHL, Senn is certainly not afraid of the pressure and is arguably the superior talent to Wedgewood. Evan Cormier, 23, struggled in the AHL and ECHL last year and is not a realistic candidate for an NHL job. So are Wedgewood and/or Senn enough? Or do the Devils need to look elsewhere?
The simplest way to add a goaltender to the mix would simply be to sign one. However, there are not many options to choose from. The top possibility maybe long-time Detroit Red Wing Jimmy Howard, simply because he is an established NHL goaltender and is not currently tied up in a PTO. Yet, there is a genuine question as to whether the sun has set on Howard’s career. Of the 57 NHL goalies who made at least 20 appearances last year, Howard finished dead last in both save percentage and goals against average. At 35, he may be done and not worth another look. However, 2019-20 did mark a steep drop-off in performance for Howard, who had remained a sold starter prior and was an elite keeper for Detroit as recently as 2016-17. So perhaps there is hope for another go-round for Howard.
A similar option to Howard, an aging vet whose play fell off considerably last season but has a long track record of success is Craig Anderson. The former Ottawa Senators starter is currently on a PTO with the Washington Capitals, though. Are the Devils willing to wait for the Capitals’ decision? And if so, is Anderson really much better than Howard, especially given his greater age and injury history?
Another option on a PTO, though expected to be released, is Scott Darling. Darling spent last season overseas, but is back in North America looking for an opportunity. When last he played in the NHL, Darling struggled greatly in two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. However, he was playing in the starter’s role at that time. Prior to Carolina, Darling was an incredibly effective backup – arguably the league’s best – in three seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. Could the possibility that he returns to form in a fallback role behind Blackwood combined with his familiarity with Crawford make him the top candidate?
Ex-Devil Cory Schneider is also awaiting the results of a PTO with the New York Islanders, but either way a reunion seems unlikely. Mike Condon is another option and while he has shown promise in the past, two straight horrendous seasons make it difficult to trust him. Zane McIntyre and Richard Bachman round out the list of uninspiring free agent options.
Of course, the Devils have the best chance to find a more suitable backup in the much deeper pool of already-signed players. While they could go the direct route and pursue a trade, there are also going to be numerous strong options available on waivers in the coming days, including the Anaheim Ducks’ Anthony Stolarz who already hit the wire today. Here are some other trade and waivers possibilities:
Adin Hill, Arizona Coyotes
Dustin Tokarski, Buffalo Sabres
Louis Domingue, Calgary Flames
Alex Nedeljkovic, Carolina Hurricanes
Calvin Pickard, Detroit Red Wings
Anton Forsberg, Edmonton Oilers
Andrew Hammond, Minnesota Wild
Charlie Lindgren, Montreal Canadiens
Keith Kinkaid, New York Rangers
Alex Lyon, Philadelphia Flyers
Jon Gillies, St. Louis Blues
Aaron Dell, Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Hutchinson, Toronto Maple Leafs
Oscar Dansk, Vegas Golden Knights
Pheonix Copley, Washington Capitals
Eric Comrie, Winnipeg Jets
With some established NHL backups, plenty of intriguing young options, and even soma familiar faces like Kinkaid and Domingue, the Devils certainly have plenty to choose from. Do they feel the need to make a trade and give up assets? Or can they hold out for waivers? Or is all the uncertainty just too much for a situation that needs an immediate and clear solution?
Stand pat, scour the remnants of the open market, or make a move for a signed player? What do you think the Devils should do in light of the news of Crawford’s indefinite leave?