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Cory Schneider faces unique challenges as Devils' No. 1

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Cory Schneider takes over the Devils' net with a big contract and big shadow looming overhead.  (USATSI)
Cory Schneider takes over the Devils' net with a big contract and big shadow looming overhead. (USATSI)

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Before the ink could even dry on the contract, the questions poured in about Cory Schneider. The reviews of his seven-year, $42 million extension were mixed. But that's not really of much concern to Schneider. Yes, the deal is going to give him a lot to live up to, but he was already facing a rather significant challenge as he takes his place between the pipes as the Devils' new No. 1 goalie.

Schneider replaces franchise legend Martin Brodeur, a challenge that he seemed more than equal to last season as he took the majority of reps while Brodeur played second fiddle for the first time in 20 years. The situation in 2013-14 was far from ideal for Schneider, who was acquired at the previous year's NHL Entry Draft.

It was clear that there was only one road the Devils were headed and that was away from Brodeur. When the Devils dished the ninth overall pick in 2013 for Schneider, it indicated they were preparing for the future.

When Schneider made a mere 41 appearances last season, however, it looked like the Devils were too eager to cling to the past and nostalgia of No. 30 between the pipes as Brodeur got 39 games in. It held Schneider back from finally seizing the No. 1 opportunity he had been waiting for over the past four years filled with many stops and few starts.

On Wednesday, the Devils made a large commitment to the future of their franchise by handing Schneider a seven-year contract worth $6 million annually. So not only did they replace Brodeur, they were paying his replacement more and gave him a contract longer than any Brodeur received in his time building a Hall of Fame career in New Jersey.

Now it's quite clearly Schneider's show.

"I think it was made very clear, you don't make this kind of deal or do this kind of extension if they didn't believe I was the guy or that I didn't believe I was going to be the guy," Schneider said when addressing the media after the deal was announced. (via NHL.com) "There was a sort of mutual understanding without it being said that this is how things were progressing and this is the next step of my evolution. I don't think either side makes that kind of commitment if you don't believe you're going to be the guy next year and for many years to come."

All that only means more pressure for Schneider to live up to the contract and step out of the long shadow cast by the winningest goalie in NHL history, with three Stanley Cup titles and a cabinet full of other individual awards.

But that's not how general manager Lou Lamoriello sees it for his new No. 1 goalie.

"Marty's legacy is what it is," Lamoriello said on a media teleconference. "Cory's not here to replace Marty; Cory's here to establish his own identity which he has done and go forward with that. We're just delighted because we go from one great goaltender to another. The philosophy of this organization has been built from the goaltender out and that will continue to be the philosophy."

While the organization may not take that approach, it's hard to imagine fans will do the same. Replacing a franchise icon is never easy, but throw on a long-term, expensive contract for a goaltender with 143 career appearances in the league and the patience may wear out quickly.

The interesting thing about Schneider is that whenever he has actually been given a chance to take the reins of his team's net -- and it hasn't been often -- he has been excellent.

Since 2010, Schneider's first season as a full-time NHLer, he has appeared in 133 games and has posted a .928 save percentage. That's the highest of any goalie in that time frame with at least 100 appearances.

And if you're concerned about sample size (and that is indeed a valid question to raise), consider that over that same span, 2013-14 Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask appeared in only 13 more games and is next on the list with a .927 save percentage. He was often stuck behind Tim Thomas in Boston, biding his time and now he has grown into one of the league's finest goaltenders.

At 28 years old, Schneider probably should have had 60 or more appearances than he does in his career based on his obvious talent. He was stuck behind Roberto Luongo while with the Vancouver Canucks and only broke 40 appearances for the first time in his career last season as Brodeur got more reps than he probably should have.

How Schneider handles a full-time role with 60 or more appearances a season is going to be worth watching. He's already in his prime years as a goaltender. The deal he just signed will end when he is 36 years old.

There are several different theories about when a goalie starts declining. One theory has a goalie's peak at 26 years old, while another has the decline beginning at 30 and getting worse by a player's mid-30s. Another wonders if there's really any noticeable pattern at all.

This is another way in which Schneider could be a unique case. Given that he has never been a true No. 1 and has only 143 appearances to his name, Schneider really hasn't had a chance to show any sort of decline. On top of that, he likely won't be subject to the fatigue other goaltenders with years on their career at this point would have to deal with. Additionally, it's hard to measure whether or not the opportunity of finally being a true No. 1 goalie gives Schneider any sort of mental edge, which most goaltending experts believe is as important an aspect as the physical skills.

Thomas actually comes to mind as a guy who didn't become a primary starter in the NHL until he was older and deeper into his career. He ended up winning Vezina Trophies at age 34 and 36 while posting .933 and .938 save percentages in those years. He's obviously a rather notable exception to the rule.

Thomas and Schneider probably couldn't be more different stylistically, which may make the comparison moot, but if there's a good example of a player seizing the opportunity to start later in life, Thomas is the shining star.

He spent years in Europe, biding his time for his first NHL chance. He signed an NHL deal at 28 years old and still didn't get regular reps until he was 31 and still had a year before he was a No. 1.

So Schneider is getting a bit of a head start and he comes in far more heralded than the unknown Thomas was upon his NHL arrival. He'll come at a discounted rate of $4 million next season before his big deal kicks in. Schneider doesn't have a great team in front of him, which is going to create some challenges, but the Devils do suppress shots well. Not for nothing, Schneider's career .925 save percentage should at the very least be a marked upgrade from Brodeur's recent performances.

And as great as Brodeur was, he spent the past four seasons well below the league-average save percentage of approximately .913. He posted a .901 mark in each of the past two seasons, which is borderline dreadful.

Schneider may never shake the comparisons, but he has most definitely earned this opportunity with well-tested patience and some intriguing skills as a goaltender. He is at the very least an improvement over what the Devils had been getting from Brodeur over the past four season.

"Certainly fundamentally he [Schneider] is an outstanding goaltender," Lamoriello said. "In my opinion he's one of the top goaltenders in the league."

For the first time in his career, Schneider will get the chance -- unimpeded -- to prove that his general manager's assessment is correct.

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