We all know that it has been a frustrating last few years for the Devils as they struggle to find traction to end a long rebuild process. One of the positive storylines to come out of the past three seasons of disappointment in New Jersey, though, has been the emergence of Mackenzie Blackwood as a solid — and at times, great — NHL goaltender. The goaltending situation has been a roller coaster in New Jersey for the better part of the last decade now, with Martin Brodeur’s career winding down, a brief elite stretch from Cory Schneider devolving into injuries and constant struggles, and Johan Hedberg, Keith Kinkaid, and a series of other journeymen and callups filling in the gaps to varying effect.
In the aggregate, it’s hard to say the Devils have gotten particularly bad goaltending for the past decade (a number of seasons it’s arguably been good or even great), but aside from those few years of Schneider at the top of his game, the situation has been far from stable in net for New Jersey. The nadir might have been in the fall of 2018, with Cory Schneider struggling mightily to find a form that would never return and Keith Kinkaid turning into a pumpkin after a fantastic homestretch in previous season.
Things looked particularly grim at that point as the Devils’ ostensible best goaltending prospect, Blackwood, was coming off a nightmarish season in the AHL in 2017-18. After a Schneider injury returned him to IR and Keith Kinkaid became too bad to keep running out there in December 2018, though, Blackwood was forced into action following a solid enough start in the AHL to get a chance.
As it turned out, he was an immediate revelation, turning in a couple of solid relief efforts after Kinkaid got the hook and saving 76 of 80 shots in his first two career starts. His third and fourth starts were both shutouts and, just like that, it suddenly looked like the Devils maybe had a future at goaltender again. Overall, that rookie season was a stellar one from Blackwood, with a couple of blips, including a bludgeoning in Calgary where he was left in the game for a staggering nine goals against on 39 shots, being the only marks against him. He’d finish the season second-best in the league in quality start percentage among goalies with 10+ starts, setting a high bar for himself out of the gate.
In 2019-20, Blackwood got off to a rocky start, with he and Schneider combining to make a mess of the months of October and November and Blackwood turning in just 7 quality starts out of his first 19. Blackwood would ultimately find his form and look very strong in the back half of the season (unfortunately just in time for everyone to already be traded or fired), but it was a bit of an uneven sophomore effort. It did seem to confirm that he had NHL chops, though, as he put up respectable sv% numbers and a positive GSAA for the second consecutive year and got a solid number of votes for the Calder Trophy. In terms of results in 2019-20, the Devils were a respectable team with Blackwood in the net overall and an unmitigated disaster in front of anyone else (22-14-8 vs. 6-15-4).
This past season, the hope was that Blackwood, with a stable veteran tandem-mate for support in Corey Crawford, would be able to turn in a strong performance in his third season with an appropriately managed workload. Of course, that tandem-mate decided to retire after a single day of training camp, so it was back to Blackwood and a bullpen of somewhat questionable options to carry the load. No matter, Blackwood came blazing out of the gate, looking stellar in his first three appearances. Unfortunately, Blackwood would then come down with a relatively significant case of COVID-19 that would sideline him for weeks. He put up two solid starts upon his return, but things fell apart shortly after, with Blackwood taking eight losses in his next nine starts, putting up just two quality starts in that run. A brief return to form in late March would be followed by another swoon in April that would solidify it as a disappointing campaign. Blackwood was again preferable to his peers, but only really by default this time around.
If we dig deeper into the numbers, we can see a peculiar trend show up from last season in Blackwood’s performance. In his first two years, Blackwood outpaced his expected goals allowed number for the Devils, saving two and three goals above expected in his first two seasons, according to the heat maps at HockeyViz. Those are not otherworldly performances, but in front of a shaky defense, they represent really solid goaltending, especially for a guy just arriving in the league.
The script got flipped on this front in 2020-21, though, with Blackwood going from a modestly positive impact to a solidly negative one. He ended up allowing 11 more goals than the expected value of the shots he faced on the season the peculiar thing that I mentioned is that all of the damage this past season came on tipped/deflected shots, with Blackwood allowing 22 goals on just 10 expected from that type of shot on the season.
So overall, it was not a good season for Blackwood, but on wrist, snap, slap, and backhand shots, he was slightly above average. Perhaps the difficulty on tips can be explained by Blackwood not tracking the puck as well for some reason, or his reaction time just being a milisecond off. Not to armchair MD things, but you wonder how much his relatively rough bout of COVID might have disrupted him (he even cited it as a reason himself for his midseason struggles). Separately, maybe it can be chalked up to a specific flaw in the defending of the Devils. Anecdotally, the Devils were fairly terrible at defending backdoor tip- and tap-in plays last season (you can see that possibly showing up on the lower-right portion of the wrist/snap heatmap too). On the other hand, nothing approaching the disparity between expected and actual shows up in the other goalies’ heat maps for that type of shot (you see it a little bit for Wedgewood, but in a smaller sample and the disparity is only half of what it is for Blackwood on a percentage basis). Luck could also play a part but going back through the video of last season of goals a lot of those tips came out front of Blackwood and just got through him.
Now, hopefully a more capable defense with the additions of Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves this summer will help clean up some of the trouble in front of Blackwood, but with Lindy Ruff still behind the bench and the rest of the coaching staff remaining the same, you’d have to expect a somewhat similar level of freewheeling hockey in 2021-22 just with better personnel. Still, if there is a type of shot most prone to randomness and bad breaks, it would have to be the tip-in, which makes me feel like a bounceback could and, perhaps, should be in the cards for Blackwood.
Tom Fitzgerald went out this offseason and got another new tandem partner for Blackwood, this time the veteran Jonathan Bernier, who has put up consistently solid results across several NHL teams in his career. Assuming no surprise departure for this offseason pickup, that should help ease the workload (and the pressure) on Blackwood and maybe lead to a return to overall form. Elsewhere, hopefully Blackwood and his goalie coaches are digging through the video to determine what went so wrong on one specific type of shot this season (one that he had performed perfectly fine against in seasons past). And perhaps without having to deal with a monthlong respiratory illness and its reverberating effects, some of this will just improve naturally. Either way, the Devils are badly in need of a stable and reliable goaltending situation and hopefully Blackwood, in tandem with Bernier, can return to form and help deliver that this season.