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What Kind of Contract Should Mackenzie Blackwood Receive?

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Blackwood has been the savior of the position for the Devils but is on an expiring contract. Given the complications of the goalie position, what type of contract should he expect?

New Jersey Devils v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Zak Krill/NHLI via Getty Images

So.

Okay *clears throat*

So the thing about goalies i—

Well, you sees, what makes goalies so tough to —

Goalies are dumb.

A gameday roster is normally 20 guys — 12 forwards, 6 defenders, and a starting goalie and a backup — and the starting goalie is clearly the most imporant one. Early on last season, we got a little taste of this when Blackwood was struggling and Cory was doing the same thing Cory’s done for the last 4 years. I recall one time specifically when the Devils had demolished 3 consecutive opponents in the run-of-play (11-5 in expected goals) and yet went 0-1-2 because, despite scoring (12) close to what was expected, they gave up (15) three times more than expected. The story of the 2019-20 Devils’ early-season struggles has a few big chapters dedicated to goaltending.

So, if goaltending is so important, how come none of them are the most well-compensated players? Shouldn’t they be like quarterbacks or starting pitchers? The issue is that, in addition to being the most important position, they are also the most random one. By “random” I mean they are the most difficult to predict. If you paid players based on past performance, goalies would be the most expensive. But the total lack of confidence in the ability of the position to sustain the performance makes that money a risky proposition.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, in a tweet of mine from February this season. At that point, the least valuable 3 goalies so far this season (Bobrovsky, Holtby, Rinne) were all goalies that had been in the top 5 over the previous 3 seasons. Knowing who has been good recently/historically is of only marginal predictive value. Coming into this season, if you talked to anyone in analytics, they’d have told you John Gibson is the best goalie in the league and the favorite to be the best in 2020 — his 62 GAR was almost 10 above the second best goalie over the past two seasons. How’d he fare? Of the 41 goalies that faced 1000+ even strength unblocked shots, he was the 27th most valuable, right between Aaron Dell and David Rittich. His .904 Sv% was ten points below his career low and 6 points below league-average.

So why am I telling you all of this? Because, when determining what to give a goalie as a contract it’s essential to be aware of both the value of the position, and the randomness associated with it. So, bear that in mind when analyzing how Blackwood has been in his first two seasons in the NHL.

Blackwood Performance

According to Evolving-Hockey, while Blackwood’s GSAA (goals saved above average) is 5th highest in the analytics era history (post-2007) through his age-22 season, his GSAx (goals saved above expectation) is actually negative. This is partially because the Devils during that time allowed less xG per shot than the average team (I know, surprising right?). But even if you isolate that component, Blackwood still comes out pretty well — a positive even-strength performer both seasons.

Here’s another methodology to show the potential variance in production a little better. Cole Anderson developed a unique rebound adjustment method for his model which probably benefits Blackwood since, particularly in 2018-19, he was quite good at preventing unnecessary rebounds. As I described above, goalies are very random. Therefore, it’s helpful to know not just what his Sv% was, but what was the span of all possible results based on the sample size we’re given. Below is the results of 100 simulations of a Blackwood-level goaltender and their Save percentages above expectation. Note that the median performance is just outside the top 15 goalies (above-average starter).

Perhaps more importantly, only 4 of the 100 simulations for his career totals had him below the 50th percentile (top 30 goalies). This means it’s highly unlikely that his performance the past two seasons was not that of a starting-caliber NHL goaltender.

Micah McCurdy’s model also has him as slightly above average and MoneyPuck has him right around average. So we have a consilience of multiple different models all concurring on the notion that Blackwood is at least an average NHL goaltender — a level of unanimity that isn’t common among those at his position. So, let’s assume that his stats to-date are at least somewhat indicative of the actual quality of his play. In that case, should absolutely re-sign him, now it’s just a matter of what to pay and for how long. What other goalies can we base this on? What other recent goalies have even put in two seasons of 20+ games by his age? And when did their contracts hit?

Blackwood Comparables

So goalie comparables are a straight up mess. There’s not a whole lot of stats to track, they’re all noisy, and they start their careers late. So step one is to find goalies that had played substantially in 2 seasons before 23. There are only 47 goalies seasons in the analytics era that fit that description (500+ EV FA) and only 11 goalies that that did it in both their age-21 and age-22 seasons. I took their all-situation stats and even-strength stats (Sv%, dSv%, GSAA, and GSAx) and ranked the 11 goalies by similarity. A 0% simlarity would mean that the goalie was the most different goalie from Blackwood in the dataset in every single statistic. A 100% match would be identical stats.

Blackwood’s top 3 age-21 comparisons were Grubauer, Saros, and Gibson, his top 3 age-22 comparisons were Holtby, Quick, and Lehner — overall his most similar player across both seasons of the 11 to John Gibson.

You can take this pretty much however you want it, I think. His 2nd most similar player is Neuvirth, so it’s not exclusively good news. I think this tells us more about how rare it is for goalies to even play as much as he has at this age. Now lets look moreso at the contracts comparables rather than the statistical age ones.

One thing unique to note about the goaltender position is that, due to its variation (and perhaps some DiPietro-related PTSD), teams almost ALWAYS go for the bridge deal even for really encouraging young goaltenders. Despite bridges being generally a bad deal (powerpoint from RITSAC 2018), this does keep the goalie as an RFA and allow the team to collect a more robust database on the asset. So, even for someone who really likes Blackwood (raises hand) we probably shouldn’t give him a deal that makes him a UFA upon expiry. Here is what some other good young goalies got in their first contract post-ELC via CapFriendly.

Blackwood won’t exceed these deals. Murray is a bit of an outlier here since he played only one season, but had a high-profile playoff contribution. The bottom 4 are closer comparables to Blackwood and the bottom two (Gibson/Lehner) were towards the top of our list above.

So what will Blackwood’s next deal be?

Well, Blackwood has been treated as the starter with a little more frequency than Gibson/Lehner had been at this point, but he also had some really ugly AHL stats. Given the other comparables were substantially higher, and Blackwood is a very important piece to the rebuild which gives him a little leverage, let’s round him up to an even 3.5% of the cap for the same 3-years that all the other goaltenders above got. With the $81.5M cap, that would add up to $8.55M over 3 years ($2.85M AAV).

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think? Does anyone not wan’t to re-sign him? If so why? Otherwise, what deal should he get? Does anyone want to skip the bridge and go right for a long-term deal? What do you think his ceiling and floor are?

Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below!