Devils Goaltending Development Making Strides Under New Management
For two decades the New Jersey Devils were afforded world-class goaltending from one of the greatest netminders in recent memory. Once Lou Lamoriello and the rest of their management realized what they had in Martin Brodeur, development of other goaltenders (understandably) took a back seat.
Their teams in the 90s and early 00s featured a carousel of veteran backups, from Mike Dunham, to an aged John Vanbiesbrouck, to Corey Schwab and Chris Terreri (twice each). No real effort was made to bring in a younger goaltender to compete with Brodeur, other than Ari Ahonen, who was drafted 27th overall in 1999. Ahonen never appeared in an NHL game.
From 2000-2014, a total of only seven goalies were drafted by the Devils. Matus Kostur (2000), Jason Smith (2003), Josh Disher (2004), Jeff Frazee (2005), Maxime Clermont (2010), Scott Wedgewood (2010), and Anthony Brodeur (2013).
Aside from Wedgewood, who showed well in his brief NHL stint in 2015-16, none of them were ever really given a chance to take over the Devils’ crease. Things changed when Cory Schneider was acquired in 2013. He cost the team a first-round pick which ended up being Bo Horvat, but they finally had their new goaltender of the future.
Shortly after Brodeur bizarrely left the Devils for a brief stint with the St. Louis Blues, Lamoriello was let go, and a new regime took over in New Jersey. Ray Shero became the new general manager, and quickly waved goodbye to another long-time team executive – director of scouting David Conte.
When Scott Clemmensen (another one of Brodeur’s many backups) retired in 2015, he was retained by the club in a different role: Director of Goaltending Development. Adding this position placed a newfound emphasis on drafting and developing their own goaltenders. They reinforced this position in the two drafts that followed, selecting Mackenzie Blackwood 42nd overall in 2015 and Evan Cormier 105th overall in 2016. On top of that, they also signed undrafted free agent Ken Appleby, who was fresh off winning the Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals.
“In all aspects of the organization, they’re putting a lot of emphasis on development,” beamed Appleby when he was asked about the new approach. “If you look at previous years, they used to sign older guys and bring them in on one-year contracts. It seems like they’re more focused on bringing in young guys, developing them, and giving them opportunity. I think New Jersey is doing a really good job with that, and I’m happy to be in an organization that knows what they’re doing.”
Appleby has split time between the AHL’s Albany Devils and the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL over the last two seasons. The 6-foot-4, 210 pound netminder has certainly progressed quickly in his pro career, appearing in 27 AHL games this season, compared to only 8 in 2015-16. After posting a .926 save percentage in his first ECHL season, he started 2016-17 with a sub-2.00 goals-against-average and was subsequently recalled to Albany. He hasn’t looked back since.
He credits this success to his work with Clemmensen, and also Michael Lawrence – who he works with in the offseason.
“[Clemmensen] is great. He’s really easy to get along with. He works with me once or twice a week at least. He’s great at sharing his knowledge, and little tools from when he played. Going from the ECHL to the AHL was a tough transition for me last year, and he helped me out a lot along the way. They only changed a few things about my game. The big thing was just improving my skating and working on my hands.”
“He has played a huge role in my development.”
Mackenzie Blackwood, who is of similar size to Appleby, turned pro this season. The two goaltenders have been splitting time in Albany, but Blackwood has had a slightly tougher transition. On a mediocre defensive team, his .897 save percentage looks a bit worse than it actually is – but those are the expected growing pains from a 20-year-old first-year pro.
Blackwood decided to forego his final year of junior eligibility, leaving the OHL’s Barrie Colts after an exceptional 2015-16 campaign. He is very much a work-in-progress, but with Schneider at the helm on the big club for the foreseeable future, the organization plans to take their time with him. He may very well end up becoming the crown jewel of their current crop of young goaltenders.
Further down the pipeline is goaltender Evan Cormier, their fourth-round selection in 2016. As the starting goaltender for the Saginaw Spirit, Cormier has made excellent strides in the last two seasons.
Once he was selected by the Devils, he was delighted to learn about the newfound focus on goaltending development. He was also surprised at the amount of depth that they have been able to build in a relatively short period of time.
“[The Devils’] goaltending depth has improved so much,” said Cormier. “Goalies can be hard to read. Once we get more experience, I’m sure they’ll know more about [the assets] they have. I’m excited about what they’re trying to build.”
Although he has only worked with Scott Clemmensen at the team’s development camp after the draft, he had similarly kind words about his coaching style.
“He has great experience from playing in the NHL,” Cormier noted. “He knows what he’s talking about. The style of goaltending that they teach is definitely different, but you have to be adaptable wherever you go. I had a great time there and learned a lot from him.”
One area that Clemmensen quickly identified with Cormier as an area to improve is his mobility while down in the butterfly. He had already pinpointed that as a weakness in his game, but hearing it from his NHL parent club gave him even more inspiration to improve.
“They want me to improve my edgework – being mobile on my knees, and getting strong pushes. I think I’ve already gotten better in the last year, because I already knew that those were areas that I needed to work on, but hearing it from them definitely confirmed it.”
Working with a young prospect on a specific technical issue is seemingly uncharted territory for the Devils compared to years past – but it’s a necessary step in order for them to develop their own goaltending talent. It’s a positive sign for a team that is very much in the heart of a rebuild, and is struggling with their current on-ice product. A strong pipeline of goaltending talent can be the backbone for the team in the future.
Credit the organization for making the strides that they have in such a short period of time, but there is still much more work to be done. It’s looking like Clemmensen is more than ready to handle the task.