There hasn’t been a ton of bright spots for the New Jersey Devils this season. They’re 26-28-12 and will be hoping for some luck in the draft lottery once again. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have players to build around. While his season did not get off to a great start, Mackenzie Blackwood has shined in net since John Hynes’ firing. He had arguably the best February of any goaltender in the NHL and is starting to show he can be a legitimate starter after a difficult beginning to the season.
Slow Start a Thing of the Past
There were a few reasons why Blackwood struggled out of the gate. He was thrown into the fire in the Devils’ first game of the season after Cory Schneider left the game due to cramps. And it did not go well, as he was part of an epic collapse which saw the Devils blow a three-goal lead to the Winnipeg Jets that ultimately set the tone for their season. He then had to make a start against the Buffalo Sabres less than 24 hours later and proceeded to give up seven goals on 36 shots.
It wasn’t until two weeks into the season before Blackwood got his first win, which came against the New York Rangers on Oct. 17. But his struggles would continue over the next month-plus, as he had an .898 save percentage (SV%) through Dec. 2. It wasn’t until Hynes’ firing on Dec. 3 when he began to turn things around.
From Dec. 3 to Dec. 31, Blackwood had a .922 SV% at all strengths, and a .938 SV% and goals saved above average (GSAA) of 4.92 at five-on-five. The latter two stats put him among the top 10 with goalies with 200 minutes played, while his .922 SV% ranked 12th in the league for December. And it’s no coincidence the Devils had a record of 5-3-2 in his starts.
But things would come down to Earth a bit in January. Blackwood played in seven games and finished with a .891 SV%. His GSAA fell back down to minus-3.75, and his five-on-five SV% dropped to .919, almost two percentage points below where he was in December.
At this point, Blackwood had a .904 SV% through 37 games played. He was still the Devils’ undisputed no. 1 netminder, as Louis Domingue was struggling as his backup. But the team needed him to find another level to his game to prove he can be their future in net. And he did so in a big way in February.
Blackwood Soared to New Heights
Blackwood’s shown flashes of brilliance in the past. He finished the 2018-19 season with a .918 SV% and had a few incredible starts. But there aren’t words to describe what he did in February, as it was nothing short of spectacular. Here’s where his five-on-five SV% and GSAA and all strengths SV% and GSAA ranked in the NHL (min. 200 minutes played):
- Five-on-five SV% = .971% (1st)
- Five-on-five GSAA = 10.80 (1st)
- All strengths SV% = .967% (1st)
- All strengths GSAA = 15.05 (1st)
Blackwood only made seven starts in February, as the Devils are lightening his workload to close out the season. But that doesn’t take away from anything he accomplished. The team was 6-0-1 in his starts, and they wouldn’t have finished 7-3-3 in February if it weren’t for him.
And it’s not like the Devils’ defense made life easy for him, either. He faced 35 shots on goal in six of his seven starts, including a 46-save shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers, and a 52-save effort in a 4-3 shootout win over the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Devils had the worst shot attempt share, and the third-worst expected goals share in February. They were allowing 65.9 shot attempts against per 60 minutes (CA/60) and 2.67 expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60). So it’s nothing short of a miracle that he finished ranked first in SV% and GSAA.
The good news is Blackwood can stay hot if his workload remains light, especially with the volume of shots he’s facing. It also helps that a resurgent Schneider has made a few quality starts since being called up after the trade deadline so Blackwood can get some nights off.
It may hurt the Devils’ draft position if he continues to play well, but at least they’ll know they can go into next season with Blackwood as their starter. Now comes the hard part of finding a reliable backup behind him because that’s been one of the team’s biggest downfalls over the last two seasons.
Blackwood Needs a Reliable Backup
There are more than a few reasons why the Devils have struggled this season, but Blackwood is not one of them. With that said, goaltending is still a significant concern because of goalies who have made starts not named Mackenzie Blackwood. His record stands at 21-13-8 on the season, which would put the Devils on pace to make the playoffs. But they’re 5-15-4 in games started by other goalies, putting them on a similar point pace with the Detroit Red Wings.
The next Devils’ GM, whether it’s Tom Fitzgerald or someone like Mike Gillis, has to address the backup goaltending situation. Gilles Senn has played well in the AHL, but they’ll need someone with an established NHL track record behind Blackwood. Fortunately, there’s a good crop of pending unrestricted free agents who should be able to help.
Anton Khudobin has played in 29 games for the Dallas Stars and has a .929 SV%, as well as a GSAA of 17.15 that ranks third in the NHL behind Tuukka Rask and Connor Hellebuyck. He has a .922 SV% and 33.62 GSAA over his last 101 games played. It may cost a bit to sign him, but he’d be the ideal backup behind Blackwood that could make for one of the better tandems in the league next season.
If the Devils can’t reach a deal with Khudobin, or he re-signs with the Stars, there are still options available. Jaroslav Halak has a .916 SV% this season and has been a solid backup behind Rask for a while. He’d likely be cheaper than Khudobin and would come on a 1-2 year deal, which makes plenty of sense for the Devils.
If the New York Islanders choose to part ways with Thomas Greiss to make room for Ilya Sorokin, he’d also be an option for the Devils. Greiss has played a significant part in the Islanders’ resurgence the last two seasons, as he has a GSAA of 23.47 and .921 SV%. So he’d be a good candidate to help make the Devils relevant again too.
But no matter what, the Devils cannot go into next season without signing a quality backup. It’s what cost them much of this season, and ultimately a reason that cost Ray Shero his job as GM. Blackwood is showing he can be a legit starter in the league. Add a reliable backup, and the Devils will be more competitive in 2020-21.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017