There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Mackenzie Blackwood’s first few weeks as a goaltender in the NHL and the New Jersey Devils are keeping their fingers crossed that their second-round pick at the 2015 NHL Draft is beginning to take the reigns as the team’s starter for the foreseeable future. Keith Kinkaid has been admirable over the past year as the starting goaltender in New Jersey and Cory Schneider hasn’t been able to stay healthy enough to win more than one (playoff) game in the 2018 calendar year.
Blackwood has been a regular at the Devils annual summer Development Camp since he was drafted three and a half years ago and the team is starting to see the results of the seeds planted in the 22-year-old’s game. With his 2-0 shutout of the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 29 Blackwood improved to 2-1-0 in five appearances/three starts since being called up from the AHL’s Binghamton Devils on Dec. 17; his only loss came in a 2-1 loss in Columbus where he stopped 37 shots.
“It’s awesome. Anytime you can get a blank slate like that it’s pretty cool,” said Blackwood following his first NHL shutout. “It feels good but there are a lot of things that go into it. A couple of good bounces, good breaks have to go your way and the team has to play good in front of you. There are a lot of variables that go into it, but it’s a good feeling to have,” he added with a smile.
Developing a Devil
“If you want to be a really strong team in the NHL you have to do it through drafting and developing; you can get some free agents here and there but when you look at the best teams they’ve done it through drafting, they’ve done it through developing, and they’ve done it through the opportunity to make opportunistic trades,” said Devils head coach John Hynes.
“It’s nice to see. We have a great development staff, a fantastic staff in Binghamton; our management and our ownership believe in them. Sometimes it doesn’t always come to fruition, but when you’re trying to build things the right way you have to get the right type of players in here, you have to have patience, you have to work like heck to get them better on the ice, off the ice, personally, professionally. All of those things come into play when you’re talking about building an organization and build a program that can compete consistently for the playoffs or for the Stanley Cup.”
Hynes went on to detail how they’ve seen their number one goalie prospect develop since they picked him 42nd overall in June of 2015. “If you look at Mackenzie Blackwood, he’s a young guy who came in as a tremendous athlete but he needed some work. He needed some work off the ice, he needed some work in becoming a professional, and he needed some work with his attention and coachability. He’s gotten that from his coaches in the AHL and credit to the player – he’s done a good job of working at his own development,” he said heaping praise on the goalie who just won his first game in New Jersey’s home rink.
“We need more guys to be able to come in here and make an impact. There’s a plan in place for them,” added Hynes. “It has to be a combination of the organization really working at that aspect of it, but it also comes down to the player and putting the time and the effort in to develop their craft.”
The Blackwood Boost
Blackwood looked really crafty on numerous occasions in the shutout of the Hurricanes, stopping Sebastian Aho on several glorious scoring chances and finishing with 37 saves on the aptly themed ‘Kids Day’ afternoon game at Prudential Center. “We’ve needed him and he’s been really good for us. We got some wins,” said Devils center Brian Boyle of Blackwood. “It’s been fun. It’s a big play when you need it; you have a breakdown and they have a grade A (scoring chance), and he’s there kicking the pad (out) or making a glove save.”
Mackenzie Blackwood appreciation tweet. pic.twitter.com/fIw7PczSQU
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) December 29, 2018
The young goalie admitted afterward that Aho was one of the players for Carolina that the coaches alerted him to prior to the game. “Before the game he was one of the players, him and (Teuvo) Teravainen, as players to key in on so whenever they got the puck in a scoring opportunity or scoring area you really have to bear down on them and give them the respect that they need in those shooting areas,” he added, sounding like a seasoned pro.
One thing that is a bit unfamiliar for the rookie netminder is the caliber of defenders in front of him, helping to protect his crease from bodies and pucks. But he’s learning that NHL defense is a bit more advanced than AHL defense. “I can’t say enough about the way they box out and clear the front of the net for me. It makes my job a heck of a lot easier when they’re out there battling like they were for me today,” said Blackwood.
The Devils fans have seen this kind of performance from a goalie called up from the AHL before. At the end of the 2015-16 season, Scott Wedgewood won his NHL debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets and then he shutout the Pittsburgh Penguins five days later. It was just over two years ago when that New Jersey roster included David Warsofsky, Patrik Elias, Tyler Kennedy, and Bobby Farnham. Wedgewood was also a bit older (24) than Blackwood is and had been in their system for a while.
The hope is that Blackwood is the next great MB in New Jersey, but only time will tell. But the early indications are that he has put in the work that Hynes detailed he needed if he wanted to become an NHL goaltender. He’s not letting any of this get to his head or looking too far ahead either.
“I trust in myself. I trust in the team. I know that if I play the way I’m capable of, prepare the same way, pay attention to little details and just keep going. I’m capable of playing at this level,” Blackwood confidently told reporters. “I don’t like to look back at anything, I don’t like to look forward at anything. I just take it one day at a time.”
There should be a pause in erecting a statue of Blackwood next to Martin Brodeur’s outside of The Rock, but it’s also okay to be excited for what the future holds for the young netminder. He’s stopped 130 of the first 136 shots he’s faced against the Blue Jackets, Bruins, Hurricanes and Maple Leafs during his first five appearances. That’s not too shabby, and his two wins have come without the Devils’ best player, Taylor Hall, in uniform.
The future is now for Blackwood and the Devils, enjoy the ride.