New Jersey Devils: What Happens When Jonathan Bernier Returns from Injury?

Jonathan Bernier #45 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bernier #45 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

New Jersey Devils prospect expert and hockey analyst Julie Robenhymer revealed Sunday night in a Bratt Pack Twitter Space that injured veteran goalie Jonathan Bernier will not only play hockey again, but is expected to return before the end of 2022. Many fans thought it was unlikely Bernier would return this season after he got hip surgery earlier this year, but he is anticipated to be fully recovered around Thanksgiving, and then he will likely need some conditioning stints in the AHL. Bernier remains an LTIR candidate for now, but the team already has Mackenzie Blackwood and added Vitek Vanecek via trade, whom they recently signed to a 3-year contract. Now what?

Goaltending was very clearly the weakest part of the New Jersey Devils in 2021-22. Things got so bad that the team ended up rolling out seven (7!!!) different starting goaltenders last season. This includes the aforementioned Bernier, as well as rookies Nico Daws and Akira Schmid. Out of the seven, Bernier was statistically the strongest of the bunch, and the eye test would likely supplement that (especially prior to his hip injury). Yet, as ‘good’ as Bernier was, he still gave up 26 goals in 8 starts and allowed a Goals Against Average north of 3.0.

GM Tom Fitzgerald made it a priority this off-season to try to ensure last year’s disaster wouldn’t happen again by adding former Washington Capitals starter Vitek Vanecek via trade. Vanecek has played roughly half of the Caps’ games in each of the last two years as part of a timeshare with Russian goalie Ilya Samsonov, who is also no longer a Capitals player after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent.

In addition to Vanecek and Bernier, the Devils will also hope to have a healthy Mackenzie Blackwood available to them this season. Blackwood has battled the injury bug for several years now; the only time he has played 40+ games in the NHL was in 19-20 when he was stellar, and the rest of the Devils team that year was not-so-stellar.

Ideally, by the time Bernier returns and gets in game shape, the Devils will be able to deploy him, Vanecek and Blackwood in a committee. Julie Robenhymer also shared that Tom Fitzgerald is a strong believer in internal competition and the iron sharpens iron mentality. He doesn’t want players to feel like their spot is safe nor guaranteed, but with Vanecek just signing a multi-year extension, the battle could reasonably end up being between Blackwood and Bernier, both of whom are on expiring contracts. Blackwood is a restricted free agent while Bernier can sign with whoever he wants, but it’s still a decision the Devils must make.

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Bernier must prove that he still has enough in the tank to be a fringe starter and backup, Blackwood must prove that he can stay healthy, and Vanecek must prove that he is an NHL starter rather than a rotational netminder. If moves aren’t made before Bernier returns, the goaltending competition will ramp up in short order.