NEWARK — Ten minutes into the third period on Oct. 14, the New Jersey Devils were nursing a 3–2 lead over San Jose when goalie Keith Kinkaid snared a slapshot for his 30th save, prompting a television timeout. As the ice crew at Prudential Center began its dry scrape, Kinkaid quickly skated to the home bench at Prudential Center and placed a drive-thru order with backup Eddie Lack.
“Hey, I’m kind of hungry,” Kinkaid said. “Can I get my pretzel?”
Lack nodded, unsurprised at the request. Among teammates, Kinkaid is famous for developing some powerful mid-game munchies. Over four-plus NHL seasons, the 29-year-old has crushed chicken fingers in Chicago, housed hot dogs at Montreal’s Bell Centre, and funneled buttered popcorn and barbecue sunflower seeds into empty water bottles … all while still dressed in his jersey and pads.
It used to be that Kinkaid only snuck snacks if he wasn’t playing that given night. (Boredom begets famine, as every idle netminder knows well.) But lately his tummy had been rumbling during starts, too. And so Lack reached down on the bench, fetched the helmet-sized soft pretzel that one of New Jersey’s equipment managers had delivered, and tore off a few pieces for Kinkaid to scarf down. “That was probably a first,” Lack says, recalling his brief deetour from pro goalie to concession stand worker. “You know what, though? That’s what makes him, him.”
Against the Sharks, Kinkaid only needed to finish a few bites before finishing the 3–2 victory with 37 saves. Two days later, however, he polished off an entire pretzel while simultaneously blanking Dallas, 3–0—the Devils’ fourth straight win to open their ‘18–19 schedule. “Our trainers approved it,” he explains with a smile and a shrug. “Get your carbs, get salt to help retain water. It’s tough to get protein bars down. They don’t taste appetizing. Not really in the mood for that.”
Most goalies are different. Kinkaid is a different goalie. For one thing he barely bothers fussing with his equipment throughout the season, cracking a joke about how often teammate Cory Schneider switches gloves. “I give a s---, I just don’t know anything about it,” Kinkaid says. “I don’t change my stuff because it’s annoying.” He also stops by the bench to chitchat during every TV timeout, even if he doesn’t require a greasy snack. “A joke here and there,” he says. “Keep everything light. Once the play’s coming down, you dial in. Other than that, could be wandering, could be thinking about what’s for dinner.”
Perhaps you already knew how the Devils feel about Kinkaid. “Makes you laugh,” defenseman Damon Severson says. “Makes you shake your head at times. He’s a unique fella, that’s for sure.” This is abundantly clear to anyone who reads those emoji-laced tweets that follow each New Jersey victory. Or who saw pictures of his viral date that originated on social media and took place at ... Chipotle. Or who watched the third episode of the Devils’ all-access training camp show, in which a mic’ed-up Kinkaid relentlessly chirped teammates who missed shots at practice.
“Sucking air, or what?” goalie coach Rollie Melanson asks him later in the video.
“No, no,” Kinkaid replies. “I just suck.”
That is far from accurate. While Schneider, the Devils' typical top dog, battled various injuries last season, Kinkaid won 26 of 38 starts and helped New Jersey clinch its first Stanley Cup playoff berth since ‘11–12. Schneider eventually reclaimed his old job during an opening-round loss to Tampa, but required summer hip surgery and has only just reported for a minor-league rehab stint. In the veteran’s absence so far, Kinkaid needed all of four games to match his shutout total from the previous two years combined (two). Even as the Devils dropped two straight last week, his save percentage (.929) and goals against average (1.95) remain near the top of the league charts.
“Everyone needs a break, whether it’s an unfortunate injury or you get on a hot streak and they keep you going,” Kinkaid said recently. “Fortunately for me, that happened. I’ve always believed in myself. I just never had the opportunity to showcase what I can do game-in and game-out. My confidence level is at an all-time high, so I’m riding that.”
As a kid, Kinkaid would ride from Farmingdale, N.Y., to nearby Nassau Coliseum, where his grandparents had previously held season tickets, and cheer for the Islanders. Those rooting interests have understandably transitioned over time, but Kinkaid keeps his roots close: The initials of his parents and sister are displayed on his current goalie mask, plus nods to separate childhood friend groups known as The Pirates of Eaton Road and Team Goose.
“That’s what they called themselves,” Kinkaid says. “I just added on.”
From there his path led to Des Moines (USHL), St. Louis (NAHL) and finally Union College, where Kinkaid earned All-American status and backstopped the Dutchmen to their first NCAA tournament appearance as a sophomore. Free agent interest from eight NHL teams soon followed, most seriously Edmonton and New Jersey. The Devils’ pitch involved hosting KinKaid in a suite and later introducing him to Martin Brodeur, who handed over an autographed stick that still lives at the Kinkaid household, an hour and a half away from his new residence.
After three seasons as a minor-league starter, Kinkaid slid seamlessly into the backup role behind Schneider, ticking off all the required traits: hard working, cheerful personality, happy to help in a pinch. “He’s got the perfect temperament,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy says. “He knew his place: Schneider was the guy and Keith was going to be ready when called upon those 25, 35 games a year. He embraced that role and threw us on his back quite a few times.”
Most of those came following the All-Star break, when Kinkaid went 19–6–1 with a .922 save percentage, including a two-week road trip highlighted by wins over Nashville, Vegas, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. After spending the summer in Newark, working out with the Devils’ training staff, he has started all six of New Jersey’s games thus far. On a technical level, Kinkaid credits Melanson with tightening his body positioning and movements, which he believes has helped prevent pucks from slipping through holes that might’ve been exposed in the past. “He’s made more saves with his shoulders and elbows than what I saw all last year,” Lack says. “He’s always been positionally sound. Now he’s actually getting to pucks.” Then again, asked where his goaltending has most improved, Kinkaid replies, “Confidence and the ability to play more.”
There is an extensive recent history of backup goalies grabbing starting roles elsewhere: Arizona’s Antti Raanta, San Jose’s Martin Jones and Colorado’s Philipp Grubauer, among others. With an expiring contract next summer—his current two-year deal is worth $1.25 million annually—Kinkaid could be next. "He’s not ever going to be happy being just a backup," agent Allain Roy says. "Ever since he’s been in the league, he’s talked about that."
Kinkaid entered a similar conversation with Severson, one of his closest friends on the Devils, during the team’s preseason excursion to Switzerland and Sweden. “What I told him is, you force somebody to make a decision, whether it’s the Devils or whether it’s somebody else needing a new starting goalie,” Severson says. “I give him props for that. As long as he keeps playing like he’s playing, someone is either going to A) make him a starting goalie or B) pay him a lot of money to be. And that’s what you want.”
For now, Kinkaid punts on that possibility. “Those guys have gotten some pretty good opportunities,” he says, referring to the likes of Raanta and Jones. “I’ve gotten mine, taken it in and tried to run away with it. But I like to stay in the moment, don’t really think about it too much. Try not to get things to jinx it.” Like most players, Kinkaid straddles the line between superstition and pregame routine. He jams out to the same type of electronic music, receives the same batch of leg and neck massages, eats the same blackened chicken pasta meal from the same Italian joint in Hoboken … not to mention whatever snack his stomach may desire after the puck drops.
“When I saw the soft pretzel, I assumed Eddie must’ve gotten hungry,” Severson says. “No, Keith comes over, rips off a little piece, puts it in his mouth and goes back to the net. Out of all the things you can eat, especially during a game, on the bench …”
Trailing off here, Severson turns to fellow blueliner Sami Vatanen at the adjacent locker room stall.
“Vats, what would you say?” Severson asks. “What’s so unique about Keith?”
“What’s unique?” Vatanen replies. “The whole guy. He’s a little different.”
“Always smiling, always laughing, having a good time. He battles his ass off, that’s for sure.”
“He’s never stressed about anything.”
“Never worries. Always chilling.”