Early on this season, when the Devils were one of the surprise stories of the year — jumping out to a surprisingly competent start while also playing fun hockey behind an encouraging trio of youngsters in Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and Mackenzie Blackwood.
After 6 points in his first 3 games (2.0 ppg), Hughes has put up 7 over the last 15 (0.47 ppg), and has just one point in his last 5 as of this writing. However, Hughes has been a positive in impacts on goals, expected goals, and shots this season so — given his statistical struggles in his rookie season — this is still somewhat clearly a success. Not to mention that he’s the most conspicuous offensive driver night-in night-out on the team.
Ty Smith has also seen the point well dry up. Smith scored more points in the first 5 games of the season (6) than he has in the 15 games since (5). However, like Hughes, it’s still very difficult to be disappointed in Smith’s overall play since, despite lower production, he’s rapidly ascended from the 3rd pair with Tennyson, to the top pair with Severson, and held his own against some of the NHL’s best in the process. He too has been a positive-impact player in goals, expected goals, and shots.
Mackenzie Blackwood is the same story, but with a slightly less cheery conclusion. After jumping out to a hot start and being among the most effective goalies in the NHL through his first 5 games, Blackwood has been among the worst in the NHL during this most recent losing streak. While he (and the Devils in general) were tormented by special teams, through 5 games (February 19th), Blackwood was debatably the best goalie in the NHL. He was 4-0-1, and had saved a higher Sv% over expected than anyone who had faced as many shots as he had. Since then, he’s 1-7 and has cost more goals at 5v5 than any goalie in the NHL (7.4), narrowly beating out Matt Murray (6.8) for the bottom spot. And, unlike his aforementioned teammates, this does not wash out in the aggregate. On the season, Blackwood is now below-average in all the all-situation goaltending categories (GSAA, GSAx, dSv%), and only narrowly above-average in the 5v5 categories.
Blackwood’s career to-date has been 3 straight seasons of Jeckyll-and-Hyde play. And while it’s the two appear to take turns on who gets to start the season, the other will rear their head eventually. Here are each of Blackwood’s seasons, divided at the point at which things started to change for him (for better or worse).
At his best, Blackwood is among the best goaltenders in the NHL. But, at his worst? Well, you can probably finish the thought there. But it is absolutely wild just how wide the discrepancy is between when he is on and off.
To try to understand what is causing this, I went back to a piece Cat Silverman did in The Athletic($). She talked about how the big change that Mac made entering his rookie season was to sit back in the crease and use his size to his advantage. Too often he got caught out of position because he was being too aggressive and relying on his athleticism to disguise mistakes. At the pro-level, the passes are a bit faster, the shots are a bit harder, and you have to rely on the highest percentage play resorting to athleticism only when necessary.
In going through the goals of the last few games I noticed two things. One, I think Ruff was correct when he said Blackwood was fighting the puck a bit — he seemed to be caught awkwardly on more than one shot (a few didn’t result in goals). A noteworthy example was Fox’s coast-to-coast PP goal
In Blackwood’s defense, I don’t actually think these numbers are all on him. In browsing through some of the NHL condensed game films, there were a ton of odd-man opportunities particularly from the counter-attacking Rangers. And in term of his statistical footprint, public data doesn’t include pre-shot passing and the royal road has been a four-lane highway against our sieve-like backend.
But with the pace that the Devils play, it is an absolute necessity that the goalie is a calming influence on the DZ play. In spite of his own athleticism, he needs to play a clean, boring game. I think sitting him a few games was probably the right call. Let’s hope Blackwood’s taken this time to mix his potion and bring back Jeckyll for the rest of the season.
Because the way the Devils are playing, they’re gonna need him.