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Two good goalies are better than one for the New Jersey Devils in 2020-21.
After waiting nine-plus months to watch a meaningful game of New Jersey Devils hockey, the 2020-21 season is right around the corner – and needless to say, it’s going to be weird.
The fans will be… sitting at home. The Prudential Center will be (essentially) empty, and the Devils will be playing their smallest slate of games since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Factor in an all but guaranteed division realignment to accommodate for the closed Canadian border and an abbreviated schedule that could feature less time between games, and it’s safe to say any team with even a small hope of contention will need to have their goaltending plans on lock.
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Well, fortunately, the Devils suddenly find themselves with not one, but two of the more intriguing netminders in the Metropolitan Division.
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After sticking it out with a rapidly developing MacKenzie Blackwood and a clearly diminished Cory Schneider, New Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald signed two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford away from the Chicago Blackhawks on a two-year, $7.8 million deal.
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While Schneider will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Devils fans for his impressive string of seasons in the mid-2010s, it’s hard to describe just how much of an upgrade Crow is over a player who finished out the 2019-20 season in Binghamton.
Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Pierre Lebrun unveiled what realigned divisions will look like for the shortened 2020-21 season. For the Devils, they’ll have the usual suspects from the Metropolitan Division — the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders.
But they’ll also have two new division “rivals” in the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, meaning the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets won’t be division foes. The Devils will play all 56 games within the division to reduce travel and risk of exposure to COVID-19. So they won’t be seeing the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets during the regular season.
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On the surface, this is a pretty tough division for the Devils. Every team other than them and the Sabres were part of the league’s 24-team, return-to-play format in the summer. A look at point projections from Jack Fraser (you may know him as @JFreshHockey on Twitter) has the Devils finishing with 57 points, second to last in the East Division and just ahead of the Sabres.
Though the Devils only project to finish with 57 points (an 84-point pace in an 82 game season), there’s not a significant gap between them and the Flyers. The Devils upgraded their goaltending significantly when they signed Corey Crawford to a two-year deal in free agency. If he and Mackenzie Blackwood produce exactly as they did last season, the Devils should be competitive. Combine that with steps forward from Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, and the Devils could surprise some. But there’s no doubt the team has a tall task ahead of them in a stacked division.
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Measuring in at 6-foot-2, 216 pounds, Crawford has the seventh-highest saves percentage of any active player in the NHL (91.8) and has the rare distinction of winning the Jennings Trophy twice – in 2013 and again in 2015.
Though he’s certainly seen his average number of games played drop over the past few seasons, going from roughly 53 from 2013-17 to roughly 35 in each of the past three seasons, Crawford is clearly still one of the better ‘name brand’ goalies in the league even if he’s more of a platoon player than an unquestioned number one.
In 2019-20, Blackwood appeared in seven more games with four more starts than Crawford with the Blackhawks, but is that the plan moving forward? Did Crawford sign what may be his final substantive contract extension to play second-fiddle to a 24-year-old goaltender with ‘long-term starter’ written all over him, or is there a world where the Crow makes Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman look silly for explicitly passing on giving the 13-year vet another contract?
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Well, fortunately, we may not have to have that conversation right now; not in the first half of 2021 at least.
Again, the 2020-21 season is going to be weird. The Devils will presumably be playing four-five games a week and may need to rely on a legit 50/50 goalie split. While the team will surely need to pick a number one goalie for the sake of consistency, there’s no reason to believe the team couldn’t roll with Crawford for a few games and then switch over to Blackwood and then back to Crawford the following week.
On paper, both players have their own merits. Crawford is a stable vet with 12,500 saves to his name. Playing him in net against more offensive-minded teams could help the Devils steal a few more wins and better evaluate the talents of developing defensemen like Ryan Murray, Connor Carrick, and Dmitry Kulikov. And as for Blackwood? Well, he’s the future. After impressing down the stretch last spring, Blackwood deserves a chance to prove one way or another what his ceiling is as a member of the Devils, and if he’s the kind of player who can fill out a defense alongside prospects like Kevin Bahl, Ty Smith, and Nolan Foote moving forward.
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In a perfect world, a team would have one elite goalie they can rely on for 60-plus games a season and a decent enough backup to keep them competitive when the top guy is out. Crawford was that guy for much of the 2010s, and, fingers crossed, Blackwood will follow suit in the 2020s. However, in 2020-21, having two very good guys may be more useful than one elite goaltender, especially if the season is only 56 games long.
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After playing his entire career with the Chicago Blackhawks, I highly doubt Corey Crawford ever expected to wear another team’s jersey in an NHL game. Had the team that drafted him prioritized loyalty as much as he did, he likely wouldn’t have, but fortunately for fans in the Garden State, that wasn’t the case. By signing with the New Jersey Devils – after a long talk with his childhood idol Martin Brodeur, which you can read here – Crawford accepted a position in a platoon and an opportunity to pass his knowledge along to MacKenzie Blackwood over the next few seasons. While either player could conceivably outplay the other and full take on a true number one role, the Devils’ best chance to win would be running a true two-goalie system where each player can play off the other. If the 2020-21 season is going to be weird, why not embrace it?