A little over a week ago, it was released that both of the New Jersey Devils goaltenders would be on rosters for the World Championships starting next month. Cory Schneider will be playing for Team USA along with two young prospects, and Mackenzie Blackwood will be on the roster for Team Canada alongside Philadelphia’s Carter Hart. Other Devils might end up playing on different teams as well, some have been announced, but the one that interests me the most is Blackwood, and I will almost certainly check out the games that he starts for Canada.
Blackwood won AATJ’s award for Best Goaltender this year, and rightly so. He was not a top 10 goalie in the league, something the Devils are generally accustomed to, what with Martin Brodeur in that category for two decades, plus Schneider being there for a couple years too. But he was definitely the most competent this season, and showed flashes of potential that could make him the team’s next top notch goalie for a long time. Among goalies with at least 1000 5v5 minutes in the crease this year, he was ranked 18th in the league with a 0.927 save percentage, and was 22nd in GSAA (goals saved above average), with a positive 4.08, these both at 5 on 5 action. He struggled at high danger attempts, ranking 44th with his HDSV% at 0.802, and a high danger GSAA of negative 3.41. But still, considering this was his first year in the NHL, and only having 21 starts to learn, those numbers are not bad at all, especially the quality 0.927 5v5 save percentage, which if he can maintain or even build upon throughout his career, would be very good indeed. Even his overall 0.918 save percentage is nothing to scoff at for a 22 year old.
Given his age and ability, frankly what he needs more of is game action against NHL-level competition. More experience to learn what works for him and what he needs to improve on will only help him get better faster, to the point where Ray Shero does not even need to consider the possibility of having to find another goaltender, but rather a contract extension. And with the Devils obviously not playing in the second season, one place he can gain more experience is at Worlds. Yes, I get that the Worlds is not exactly the most prestigious tournament, with the playoffs taking precedent, and many not playing due to lingering injuries from the regular season or whatnot. However, there are positives to playing there, with the experience I just mentioned against quality competition just one of them.
Beyond that, playing for Team Canada brings with it a level of prestige and expectation of winning. Even if this is not the Olympics, Canada wants and even expects to win these things, and that gives Blackwood a level of pressure that he will have to play under, when he does start. You can expect that Carter Hart will probably get more of them, with his head coach in Philadelphia also coaching Team Canada, but Blackwood shouldn’t sit the bench the entire time. When he is out there, there will be pressure on him to succeed, just like there is pressure when he is out there for the Devils. He will take these games seriously, and that is a good thing, gaining more experience at a high level with pressure.
Yes, this tournament might only lead to a couple more games played for him, so this is not like some amazing opportunity that will craft him into an instant veteran. But it is not nothing either. It is a little while longer where Blackwood can learn and improve at his craft. For a Devils team that will look to rebound quickly after their poor season, thanks to the #1 overall draft pick plus a lot of cap room, having Blackwood improving as much as he can now is vital for a faster turnaround next year. Were the Devils of last year the aberration, or the Devils of this year? If the Devils want that to be answered in the positive, Blackwood will need to be more consistent in the crease next year, and I hope that he gains something from playing at the Worlds this year.
In the end, as a secondary, it also makes the tournament more interesting to watch. I want to see how Blackwood plays, how he does, what he can do in that situation. I certainly will not be as interested to tune in when Hart gets the nod, as it is not a Devil in the crease. For a tournament with little meaning, especially when there are compelling games on each night for the playoffs, having a reason to tune is a good thing, and seeing what Blackwood can do is definitely a reason for me. Here’s to hoping that he does well and takes some positives from this upcoming experience.
PS: I did mention that Schneider is also playing in the tourney, for Team USA. It will also be interesting to see if he can continue to build off of his regular season resurgence. If both goaltenders head into next season playing quality hockey, it could make for a 1 vs. 1a situation in the locker room, as opposed to a clear starter vs. backup. I might be more interested in what Blackwood shows us, but seeing what Schneider does for the stars and stripes is not inconsequential either.