Devils’ Blackwood Deserves to Be Calder Finalist

There weren’t a lot of positives for the New Jersey Devils before the NHL suspended play because of the coronavirus. But the team was beginning to win some games, as they were 11-5-5 over their last 21 contests. A significant reason for that was the emergence of goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, who went 8-1-2 with a save percentage (SV%) of .941 over his final 11 games played.

Had not it been for Blackwood, the Devils would likely have been heading for a similar point-pace as the Detroit Red Wings. His emergence shows he can be a legitimate starter in the NHL. And because his rookie status carried over from a season ago, he should be among the Calder finalists whenever the season comes to an official end. 

Blackwood’s Rise to the Top

Blackwood did not get off to a great start this season. He was thrown into the fire against the Winnipeg Jets when Cory Schneider left the team’s season opener due to cramping. He then had to make a start less than 24 hours later, where he gave up seven goals on 35 shots against the Buffalo Sabres in a 7-2 loss. 

It wasn’t until the Devils let go of head coach John Hynes on Dec. 3 when Blackwood began to rise to the occasion. He had a 5-3-2 record the rest of the month, as well as a .922 SV%. His play took a slight dip in January, but it wasn’t long before he rebounded, and he did so in a big way. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood’s stock is on the rise among young, NHL goaltenders (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Blackwood was limited to seven starts in February, as the team was trying to manage his workload. But there wasn’t a goaltender better than him that month. He had a .961 SV%, which ranked first among qualified starters, as did his five-on-five SV% too. His goals saved above average (GSAA) of 10.80 was nearly five points better than Anton Khudobin’s GSAA of 6.31. When games came to a halt, Blackwood’s record stood at 22-14-8. But when other Devils’ goalies made a start, the team was just 6-15-4.

Related: Devils’ Draft Fortunes Could Be Boosted by NHL Suspension

You may have heard of wins above replacement (WAR) before, especially if you’re a baseball fan. It measures how many wins a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player. Blackwood’s WAR of 2.2 leads all rookie goalies, even putting him ahead of Columbus Blue Jackets’ rookie netminder, Elvis Merzlikins. Blackwood also has a .931 SV% since the Devils moved on from Hynes, so he should be in the Calder conversation. But it won’t come without some debate. 

Surveying Blackwood’s Calder Competitors

There’s no doubt Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, brother of former Devils’ first overall pick Jack Hughes, will be two of the Calder finalists. It’s the third spot where things get interesting, and where Blackwood will have stiff competition. 

From the goalies, Merzlikins has the best shot to beat out Blackwood. He has a .923 SV% in 33 games played, as well as a WAR of 2.1 when the NHL stoppage occurred. The Blue Jackets wouldn’t have been battling for a playoff spot if it weren’t for his stellar play. And while that shouldn’t matter, it’s something voters will consider when casting their ballots. 

Another goalie who’ll be in the conversation is Ilya Samsonov of the Washington Capitals. He’s 16-6-2 on the season and has a .913 SV% while outplaying veteran Braden Holtby, who has struggled this season. With that said, Samsonov’s GSAA and WAR are well below Merzlikins and Blackwood’s, so he’ll have work to do to catch either if play resumes. 

Elvis Merzlikins Columbus Blue Jackets
Elvis Merzlikins and Mackenzie Blackwood may battle it out to be Calder finalists (Photo by Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There are also a few skaters who’ll compete with Blackwood for the third and final spot. Dominik Kubalík has 30 goals in 68 games for the Chicago Blackhawks, a 36-goal pace over 82 games. But his WAR of 1.8 is just below Blackwood and Merzlikins’s, and his defensive impact has been average at best. 

Buffalo Sabres’ winger Victor Olofsson has 20 goals and 42 points in 54 games but had cooled off down the stretch, with eight points in his final 17 games before the stoppage. He’s also had a negative defensive impact and has not been as prolific offensively as Kubalík. 

Related: Devils’ Top Finnish Players of All Time

If there’s a skater who’ll give Blackwood the best run for his money, it’s New York Rangers’ defenseman, Adam Fox. He has 42 points in 70 games and is hands down the Rangers’ best defenseman. He’s had a strong positive impact both offensively and defensively, and he has a WAR of 2.7. So the final spot could come down to him and Blackwood when voting takes place. 

Blackwood’s Case Against the Rest

Hughes and Makar are most likely locks to be two of the finalists, and Blackwood has a strong case to join them. The Devils had no business winning games for the better part of the last month or so. They were getting outshot and out-chanced on an almost nightly basis, but Blackwood stole more than a few contests. The issue here is the Devils are well out of a playoff spot. While I disagree that should be a determiner in naming award winners and finalists, some voters factor it into their decision-making. 

That may end up hurting Blackwood in some voters’ eyes. But there’s no doubt he should be one of the three finalists. He has the best underlying numbers from the rookie goalies in this year’s class. And the only three rookies who have a higher WAR than Blackwood are Makar, Fox, and defenseman, John Marino, the latter of whom hasn’t had the offensive impact of Fox. 

Mackenzie Blackwood New Jersey Devils
Mackenzie Blackwood’s stellar season shouldn’t go unnoticed because of the Devils’ struggles (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

And consider this, the Devils would be in a world of hurt without Blackwood. In games where goalies other than him have started, they were on pace to finish 19-50-13, a 51-point pace over 82 games. With him in net, they were on pace to finish 41-26-14, a 96-point pace over 82 games. That’s a difference between having the best odds to win the first overall pick in the draft lottery and being a playoff team. If that isn’t enough of a case to be a Calder finalist, then I’m not sure what is. 

* * *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick; WAR from Evolving Hockey