Let’s face it, in some ways Cory Schneider is experiencing the most difficult challenge in the history of National Hockey League goaltending.
He’s following Martin Brodeur‘s act in Newark.
Not that Schneider is complaining. He’s making big bucks, playing lots and winning as well. But it does come at a psychological price.
After all, moving into the Devils crease after Brodeur is roughly equivalent to a Yankee trying to be the next Derek Jeter or Mariano Rivera. It just doesn’t get tougher than that; mentally and physically.
But enough years have elapsed since Brodeur moved on to a St. Louis Blues management position and now — really for the first time — Cory is being judged on his own merits.
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So far, the rave reviews have been many and varied, but all positive from a variety of precincts. For starters, I cornered coach John Hynes with a question about Schneider’s improvement.
“The difference between Cory this year compared to last season,” Hynes explained, “is that he’s much ‘tighter.’ Last year we saw him make some big saves but, maybe, once a game he’d give up a leaky goal; or one he’d want back. Now he’s making key saves at key times.”
Glenn (Chico) Resch, former Devils netminder and current analyst on the club’s radio broadcasts, has marveled about Schneider’s performances so far this season.
“Right now,” Resch unequivocally told me, “Cory is one of the five best goalies in the NHL. He’s got it down pat both on the technical side as well as the mental side. On top of that, he knows that he’s good.”
Significantly, at the end of last season, Schneider and his sidekick, Keith Kinkaid, were rotating on a game-by-game basis. Kinkaid played a career-high 26 contests.
But barring a sudden strategic change by the high command, it appears that Schneider will do as Brodeur did; play as many games as possible from here to the finish line in April.
Which should be just ginger-peachy up and down the lineup because if there’s been one constant behind the Devils astonishing climb in the East it’s been Schneider’s nonpareil netminding.
“I believe that Cory wants to be recognized as a great goalie,” added Resch, “and to be so, he’s gotta play around 70 games.”
So far, so good. As the saying goes; “Compare; comparison proves.”
Following an impressive 2015-16 campaign, Schneider had a down 2016-17 season. He finished with a 2.82 goals against average and .908 save percentage; not exactly standing-ovation-worthy.
So far this season, his comparable numbers are 2.67 and .918. When reviewing the arithmetic, bear in mind that he doesn’t have Hall of Fame defenders in front of him; such as Scott Stevens and Scotty Niedermayer.
According to Resch, goaltenders around the NHL are impressed with Schneider on several counts, primarily because he can match any goalie from the technical side plus he’s consistent and rarely gives up a bad goal.
More to the point, the Devils, who in September were given as much of a chance to win as a goldfish in a piranha bowl, are ahead of both the Rangers and Islanders in the standings.
Matter of fact, many believe that New Jersey’s startling good mark of 22-11-8 for 52 points — third in the Metropolitan Division — is due in large part to Schneider’s excellence.
Which brings up the issue of how many games Cory should play as opposed to his backup Kinkaid.
Hynes: “Given a choice, Schneider would want to play 70 games but we’d rather that he not get that much work. Although I know he’s capable of doing so, my choice is to have him play 65 games so that Keith can get work in as well.
“We’ve got to handle the goaltending the right way because our division is so tight; the tightest one in the NHL. Cory is so important to us since our goal is to gain respect, which we didn’t get last year.”
Coming off their annual league-mandated bye, the Devils host a fast-climbing Flyers club on Saturday; a game in which Schneider must be at his best.
“The difference I see in Schneider,” said Devils radio play-by-play man Matt Loughlin, “is that he’s more dependable; it’s as simple as that. He’ll make a key save and keep his team in the game.”
Entering the second — and arguably the most challenging — half of the season, the Devils sagged a little before the break, losing their last game to the Islanders, 5-4, in a five-round shootout after blowing a two-goal lead late in the third period.
Not one to shirk responsibility, Cory unabashedly told newsmen, “I didn’t get the job done.”
In a 0-2-3 skid, the Devils meet the Islanders at Barclays Center again next Tuesday when another Schneider-Jaro Halak confrontation is likely to take place.
A less prominent reason for Cory’s improvement was Devils GM Ray Shero‘s decision to import Roland Melanson as goalie coach replacing Chris Terreri who, ironically, moved on to the Islanders.
“There’s a familiarity and trust between Schneider and Rollie,” explained Leo Scaglione, Jr., Devils beat reporter for the New York Hockey Journal. “They worked together when Cory played in Vancouver. His best years were under Melanson.”
Finally, if Schneider tightened any loose area of his game it was stickhandling; once his prominent weakness. Devils radio statistician Craig Seiden believes it’s key to Cory’s new capabilities.
“His improvement in handling the puck behind the net goes unnoticed by many,” said Seiden. “It’s one of the most undervalued aspects of a goaltender’s game.
“Cory’s ability to stop the attack before it even starts — with a breakout pass to a defenseman — or to clear the zone has helped him, and the team as well.”
Shades of Martin Brodeur.
“Like Marty in his Devils prime,” concluded Scaglione, Jr., “Cory knows that the net is his!”
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