As of 9 o’clock this morning when I was writing this piece, there was still no confirmation on who the starting goaltender would be this afternoon for the New Jersey Devils in their tilt against Philadelphia. On Left Wing Lock, Keith Kinkaid was the projected, but Abbey Mastracco on northjersey.com yesterday wrote how Mackenzie Blackwood was able to get through a full practice yesterday and told the media that he feels 100 percent heading into today.
While he might not start today, and perhaps it is the wiser thing to give him a little more rest, maybe bringing him back out Tuesday vs Chicago, nonetheless I want to bring up today that one of the reasons to keep looking forward this season, at least in my opinion, is to see the development of Blackwood. For many fans, given where the Devils are in the standings, they will begin to root for losses to pile up so that NJ can have the best chance at winning the lottery again, or still getting a high pick even if they don’t win it. Being able to add Jack Hughes to this roster next season would do wonders for the team’s scoring capabilities, so I understand the fan sentiment in that regard. And given the overall NHL standings, while the Devils have a few more points than you perhaps might like to see if you’re rooting for tanking, in reality the only team you might think has a definitively higher shot at ending as the worst team is Los Angeles. Anything else is possible.
However, for many fans, rooting for your favorite team to lose is a tough one, and I fully get that as well. That takes all the fun out of being a fan, and you might turn into Randy Quaid from Major League II, forever negative and grouchy. To avoid that, while still rooting for the team to do well, I like to look at the development and progress of some of the younger players, perhaps of those who can become major contributors in the near future. And to me, one of the most important players to see growth and development has to be Blackwood.
In my opinion, the reason for that is not specifically because of Blackwood the player, but also because of the state of the goaltending position for New Jersey. The Devils have really never been a franchise that can rely on offensive output to overcome mediocre goaltending. For this team to do well and to go far, it has traditionally relied on a strong defense and even stronger goaltending. Earlier in the week, CJ discussed the troubling state of the blue line for this team. That leaves the state of the goaltending position, which is perhaps in just as poor a state.
With the rather quick decline of Cory Schneider’s skills, from being an all-star in 2016 to essentially a non-entity this year, the slack has not been picked up. Keith Kinkaid was nothing short of fabulous late last season to bring NJ to the postseason, but he has been continually inconsistent, and his stats this season as the de facto starter have been underwhelming to say the least. While he proved last year that he has the skills to be an above average NHL starter in any given game, and even for stretches at a time, this season he is proving that he has not figured out how to maintain that level of play consistently over the long term.
For the future of the position in New Jersey, then, the brightest hope seems to fall to Blackwood, a second round pick in 2015 which in an of itself comes with a higher level of expectation and hope for success. With Schneider and Kinkaid starting over the last few years, Blackwood has had time to develop his game. Now, when called up, we have seen the success and strong play he can bring to the Devils, if only in a small sample size so far.
For NJ to really become a strong contender again, or even return to the playoffs like last season, the team really needs Blackwood to pan out. To hit on that second round pick would be nothing short of huge. This year, the Devils sit at 24th in 5v5 save percentage. They managed to make it last year while ending the season ranked 25th in that category, but to achieve consistent playoff contention, that needs to improve. And barring a free agent acquisition or a trade, Blackwood is the best and most likely long term option. And even between the three, ideally Blackwood panning out would be better than the other two options. Developing a young player from within the organization almost always is the better way.
Given this, that is what made his few starts this year already so important and so exciting. If he can show that he is the direction this team needs to go at the position for the future, that solves some problems this offseason and opens up more possibilities for Ray Shero to upgrade other positions. And, with a strong goaltender back in net again, it could help bring NJ back to playing the hockey that it is known for.
So with 43 games into the season, and the Devils near the bottom of the NHL in the standings, if you’re having trouble getting excited about this team, I think Blackwood is something, someone, that you can put your focus into and really root for success. He might not play today, but if John Hynes and Co. are smart, he will get a bulk of the remaining starts this season for the big club when he is healthy. They want to see if he can be a starter just as much as we do, and they have to know that he could be the future behind net, with a much higher ceiling than Kinkaid. The Devils might not win a lot of games moving forward, but regardless, we can all hope to see Blackwood improve and show that he is the real deal back there, and belongs in New Jersey moving forward.
That is how I feel, however. How do you feel? Do you think Blackwood is one of the more intriguing storylines to watch for this team moving forward this season? Or, are you looking elsewhere on the team, looking for others to improve their games even more? What do you hope to see in terms of improvement for this team moving forward this season? Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.