Today in our Devils-Flyers rivalry week series, we cast an eye toward the future instead of the past as we take a look at one of the more compelling storylines that could develop over the next five or ten years of the Devils’ matchups with those degenerates from the other end of the Turnpike. When the Devils and Flyers selected first and second in the 2017 draft, those picks of Nico Hischier for the Devils and Nolan Patrick for the Flyers were destined to be a focal point in the rivalry for years to come. At times, that has been the case, as Nico gained the early upper hand and has been accordingly serenaded with “Nico’s better” chants at the Rock on a few occasions. But with Patrick’s struggles becoming more-and-more entwined with his injury issues and Nico performing well but still waiting for his big breakout, some of the wind has come out of the sails of that element of the rivalry. In its place though, an equally compelling storyline has begun to emerge to potentially define the next chapter of the rivalry. Instead of #1 and #2 picks, though, these two players were recently selected in the second round of the draft by their respective teams and they happen to reside between the pipes. I’m of course talking about the pair of up-and-coming goaltenders, MacKenzie Blackwood and Carter Hart.
Goaltending matchups haven’t been much of a storyline between the Devils and Flyers over the years and aside from the brief overlap between Ron Hextall’s twilight and Martin Brodeur’s rise, the two teams haven’t really both had the position figured out at the same time over the course of the rivalry. Much of that is owing to the fact that the Flyers net has been a near-comical revolving door since Hextall’s departure, but a true Devils-Flyers goalie rivalry akin to the familiar Devils/Rangers Martin Brodeur-Mike Richter debates of the mid-90s or the Brodeur-Henrik Lundqvist arguments of the late 2000s/early 2010s could be beginning to brew between the fanbases with Blackwood and Hart.
As mentioned above, both Blackwood and Hart were second round picks for their teams, with Blackwood picked in 2015 and Hart in 2016. The second round label is slightly misleading for both, though, as each was touted among the top goalie prospects in their respective classes. Blackwood ended up being the second goalie off the board in 2015 at 42nd overall and Hart was actually the first netminder taken in 2016 at 48th overall. The phrase that has caught on in the hockey community (and the hockey analytics community in particular) is “goalies are voodoo,” given how difficult it is to predict their performance from year to year and even month to month. These two were selected as high as they were, though, because they were seen as a clear hope of being a future solution in net. For now at least, it appears that both may be on track for that outcome. The caveat that goalies are voodoo and both could completely forget how to play the position at any moment must always be mentioned, but early returns have been impressive in both cases.
The timeline of Blackwood and Hart’s breakouts line up remarkably well and it makes them that much more compelling as foils for one another. They each made their NHL debut on the very same night: December 18, 2018. Each of their teams were in near-identical tailspins prior to the rookie goaltenders’ arrivals, with the Flyers and Devils both having lost 11 of their previous 14 games. Both debuts were made possible by injury troubles (for the Devils, Cory Schneider was on the injured list and for the Flyers, they had already been through 5 (!) goalies between injuries and poor performances), and each goalie arrived as a ray of hope in the face of steadily worsening circumstances in net for their respective teams.
Not everything was exactly the same about that night, as Hart would make the start and get the victory for Philadelphia against the Red Wings and Blackwood would enter in relief for New Jersey after Keith Kinkaid was absolutely shelled by the Leafs in the opening two periods and wouldn’t figure into the decision. The two goalies also had slightly differing initial expectations, as Hart arrived in Philadelphia to much fanfare after a dominant 2017-18 in the WHL, whereas Blackwood came in with hope but definite skepticism after a fairly disastrous 2017-18 in the AHL. Both would quickly win adoration from their fanbases and carve out a place for themselves in the NHL. Despite having truncated opening seasons with bad teams, both would garner a bit of Calder buzz (though ultimately not many votes, with Hart picking up a handful for his 31 appearances and Blackwood not receiving any with only 23 appearances).
The numbers for each draw the comparisons between the two still closer together. Through two seasons, Blackwood has 70 appearances (64 starts) with a save percentage of .916 and a quality start percentage of .563. Hart has 74 appearances (70 starts) with a save percentage of .915 and a quality start percentage of .557. They also track remarkably close to one another in GSAA (via Evolving Hockey), with Blackwood ranking 13th in the league (out of 65 with 1000+ attempts faced) over the past two seasons and Hart sitting one slot behind him in 14th. Through two seasons, they are almost statistically identical goaltenders, at least from a broad view.
Not everything is quite the same, as Blackwood seems to be the more dynamic goaltender but is also prone to more meltdowns. Blackwood has the clear edge in shutouts with five against Hart’s one, but Hart has a better GAA thanks to a less leaky defense and a tendency to not get blown up quite as often as Blackwood (only five appearances with 5+ goals against versus 10 for Blackwood). Blackwood has also been considerably more effective than Hart at 5v5, where he again ranks 13th in GSAA in the last two years whereas Hart ranks way down at 39th.
Stability in net is something the Devils haven’t had in several years and it’s something the Flyers haven’t really had this millennium. With Blackwood and Hart, both teams may have found themselves a solution to their goaltending woes as well as a new element of the rivalry to argue about. By virtue of being on a better Flyers team, Hart has received a little bit more shine around the league at this point, but Blackwood easily has a just-as-impressive NHL body of work so far. If both end up having sustained success, we could be set up for years of thrilling goaltending duels and petty bickering about who the better goaltender is between them. Excuse me while I go work on my sing-song “Caaaarrrrterrrr” taunt.