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What Mackenzie Blackwood’s Hot Start Means and What It Doesn’t Mean

I look at metrics for goalies and talk to experts about Mackenzie Blackwood’s red-hot start to his NHL career to try to get answers on how much of this is real.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Mackenzie Blackwood is the Lord and I am the one true prophet.

In my piece suggesting demoting Cory Schneider, I implicitly endorsed Blackwood as the only reasonable call-up who was, at the time, killing it in the AHL. In the aftermath of that article, I talked about how invaluable Blackwood’s development was due to the importance of the goaltender position and our complete lack of long-term plan B given Kinkaid’s and Schneider’s performance/age. At one point I even labeled his development as more important to the future of the franchise than re-signing Taylor Hall. That one caught me a fair bit of flack including an objectively hilarious thread of memes which seems to have started right around here and really hit it’s stride here and here.

I’m not here to gloat, in fact, I’m actually doing the exact opposite. I’m not right.

I mean, I’m probably right, Obviously I think so or I wouldn’t have said it in the first place. But I certainly haven’t been proven right yet. Goaltending is extremely volatile and the sample size we have is very small. I know, I know: “He has 2 straight shutouts CJ, that doesn’t just happen to anyone!” First of all, yes, yes it does. Pete Mrazek did it to the Devils a year ago. This year, Mrazek has a .901 Sv% for the Hurricanes while splitting time with the phenom himself, Curtis McElhinney. Second of all, one Mac’s shutouts was against the Carolina so that one doesn’t really count. Third, even if he did earn both with great play, there’s no guarantee that gets sustained — this type of play happens a lot.

Average Goalies Do This More Than You’d Think

Mackenzie Blackwood has been very good (6.89 GSAA, 0.963 Sv% according to OffsideReview) for 6 games (4 starts, 2 relief appearances). He currently is in a 123-minute shutout streak in which he’s saved 65 consecutive shots, securing the NHL’s 3rd star of the week in the process. UpLet’s look at rolling sums for all NHL goalies this year to see if any have topped Mac’s 6-game value in goals saved above average

That’s an image of all the goalies that have, at some point this season, had a run as good as, or better than, Blackwood’s. The list of players is as follows:

TuUkka Rask, Sergei Bobrovsky, Semyon Varlmov, Robin Lehner, Pekka Rinne, Matt Murray, Marc-Andre Fleury, Juuse Saros, John Gibson, Jimmy Howard, Jaroslav Halak, Jacob Markstrom, Jack Campbell, Frederik Andersen, Corey Crawford, and Braden Holtby.

*and breathe*

I’m not saying that that’s not a good list. I’m saying that there are SEVENTEEN GOALIES just this year who have had a run like this and the quality of the goalies is all over the map. Murray and Crawford have posted below league-average Sv%s this season despite these hot streaks dragging up their numbers. Howard had been a league average goaltender for ~460 GP coming into this, his age-34 season. Robin Lehner now leads the league in Sv% after posting a 0.902 over 50 games started last year. Jacob Markstrom has been a replacement-level goaltender over his whole career, and is only slightly above average this year. Halak had been an average goaltender for about 8 years before having the best season of his career with the Bruins so far this year. Campbell was a backup who ahd 6 NHL games to his name before this year, and Saros is still a backup.

So you see what I’m saying ... this run of play happens to a pretty wide range of goalies. Jake Allen, Thomas Greiss, Anti Raanta, Devan Dubnyk, and Curtis McElhinney have all come within a decimal of Blackwood’s GSAA as well. There’s also similar stories from other young guys like 6th round, 2011 draft pick, Laurent Brossoit, who is 8-1-1 with a 0.939 Sv% for the Jets is threatening to continue stealing starts from 2018 Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck. Undrafted rookie, Collin Delia, has given up just 5 goals in his 3-0 start with the Blackhawks is experiencing a campaign to allow him to start the Winter Classic over Cam Ward. Don’t know who those guys are? That’s fine, it’s possible you’ll never need to know their names. So here’s one more comparison that I bet most of you will remember:

Goalie A) 3-1-0, 0.963 Sv%, 1.25 GAA

Goalie B) 2-1-1, 0.957 Sv%, 1.25 GAA

Unsurprisingly, Goalie A is Mackenzie Blackwood. Goalie B? Former Devil, Scott Wedgewood.

In March of 2016, Scott Wedgewood had a start that was eerily similar to Blackwood’s current run. While Mac is threatening to permanently take over the starting role, Wedgewood would start no games the rest of that season, or the next season. He was ultimately traded to the Coyotes for a 5th round pick that would be used on Akira Schmid. Wedgewood registered a shimmering 0.893 Sv% and a formidable 3.45 GAA en route to 5 wins over 20 appearances for the Yotes. No one has seen him since. Legend has it he retreated to his hometown of Brampton, Ontario where he works at the lovely Rose Theatre, and has dedicated is life to the arts.

Actually he’s having a decent season for Buffalo’s AHL team right now, but you get my point— no one cares about Scott Wedgewood anymore. So what’s different this year? Well, when Wedgewood made his run, the Devils had a 29-year-old Cory Schneider who had just posted his 6th consecutive season of 0.920 Sv% or higher. Now, goaltending is the Devils single biggest problem. Don’t let the wish be the father of the thought. Don’t let the fact that the Devils desperately need goaltending lead you to prematurely conclude that Blackwood is the long-term answer. He might be, but we certainly don’t have enough information on that yet. Furthermore, if you held an opinion of Blackwood for the better part of 2 years, you should not have drastically altered it in that past week.

Experts: Blackwood High Ceiling, Needs Refinement

I feel as though the impulse from most will be to retreat to one or the other corner of this debate. Some will say this means absolutely nothing, and some will say the Devils have found the answer.

It’s neither. As I mentioned above, the statistics are fluky. No one finishes with a 0.963 Sv% so he’s going to have a bad game and it will help us to know how he reacts to that given his history of streaky play (demoted to Adirondack after being one of the worst goalies in the AHL just last season). But we’d be stupid to not notice some of the good things.

For instance, his athleticism and raw physical dimensions make him able to make saves that most goalies alive are simply unable to. This has been used to great success for someone like Frederik Anderson who has been one of the most consistently good goalies in the NHL over his 6 years in the league.

So what’s stopping him from becoming that? I asked around for some more info on his performance from people that know better than me — former goalies. First, Hockey-Graphs contributor, Nick Mercadente, via Twitter:

“He relies on incredible flexibility and push to cover up poor rebound control and some issues with anticipating play to set up for easier saves. He makes a lot of extra work for himself. Looks flashy but teams will stretch him and his D. Reminds me of Gibson’s early days a bit. What I see is that he doesn’t make routine saves routine. Goalies shouldn’t visibly look spectacular on every save. They should almost look boring most of the game. Everything is exciting when it’s working, but unnerving when it’s not because of his issues with anticipating play.”

Second, from Cole Anderson, creator of CrowdScout Sports, also via Twitter:

“[He] has had great results in limited time, very unlikely due to chance alone. Consistency will always be difficult to establish when playing up a level, but couldn’t ask for a better start. ... Looks to have some awesome lower-body mobility, but the flip side of that athleticism can be positioning issues, so that’s more wait and see.”

I also reached out to The Athletic contributor, Catherine Silverman, who said there would be companion pieces on Blackwood from Devils writer, Corey Masisak, and herself soon. As of this writing, those articles are not posted. She did offer me this quote though:

“So take a look at this play from earlier this year in particular. When I talked about him last year, I was a bit concerned with his depth and edges, but he’s gained a ton of confidence and it shows in how he holds himself in his crease even when there’s pressure heading towards the zone. He stays inside the blue paint and doesn’t get caught making too many movements until he sees the shot released, exercising patience with his drops and not getting too fancy. He’s a bigger guy, and he seems to have figured out how much movement he needs to take up the necessary amount of space”

Concluding Thoughts

Mackenzie Blackwood was a 2nd round draft pick for a reason. His size and athleticism are absurd and they give him the potential to be a truly great goaltender. That said, the size and athleticism were there last year when he saved 88% of shots against AHL competition. He was certainly improved in the AHL this year, but several were still better — much of whom have, rightfully so, not been promoted, and one of whom ... WAS SCOTT WEDGEWOOD.

Is he demonstrably better this year than last year? By all accounts ... yes, absolutely. However, did his AHL performance indicate he would immediately be an above average NHL goaltender? No. His performance mirrored that of what would likely be a good NHL backup.

His performance in the first few games has been impressive, if a bit fluky. However, as Cole said, it’s not likely to be 100% attributable to luck. While we shouldn’t label him suddenly as THE ANSWER in net, I think it’s also foolish to not slightly tweak our projections for him. This is someone that, a week ago, we had absolutely no indication of if he even had a future as an NHL backup. He’s now in conversation to be the Devils starter.

What he’s shown us is that he is capable of putting it all together and being a very good goalie. For anyone who didn’t think that level was in the realm of feasibility, it needs to be added. But the interval of possibilities is still very wide and, yes, does still include “not an NHL goaltender.” What we need to know, is if he is capable of keeping it all together. What happens when he faces the Lightning instead of the Hurricanes? What happens when he gives up 3 goals in the first period of an off night? What happens when he gets in a funk for a week or two?

Mac has earned a shot at the starting job partially because of how bad Schneider has been and how uninspiring Kinkaid has been. This is why over half of you believe Mac will be the starting goaltender next season. And that’s the motivation for this piece — it’s too early to say that.

There’s so much unknown here but, if pressed for a projection, I’d say I believe Kinkaid is probably still the odds-on favorite for starts next year and when accounting for all other possibilities (healthy Schneider, free agent, trade, etc.), I’d put it at around 45% Kinkaid, 30-35% Mac, and 20-25% other.

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think? How much of Blackwood’s start is real? Who is likely to be the starter next year? I’d like to Cat, Nick, and Cole for their thoughts and all of you for reading! Feel free to leave your thoughts below, and Happy New Year!