The New Jersey Devils need a jump start right now. After an early season 13 game win streak vaulted them into first place in the Metropolitan division with the entire league talking about them, they’ve come back to Earth and recently lost three straight games. With a home matchup tonight against the struggling Second Rate Rivals, it will be interesting to see how the Devils respond. They need someone to step up, someone to give them a spark.
And as of right now, that player isn’t going to be Mackenzie Blackwood.
Granted, part of the reason Blackwood won’t be sparking the team is because the plan all along was for him to spend more than just one game in Utica rehabbing from injury. Even in the best of cases, it would’ve been highly unlikely to see Blackwood play for the Comets last night and then travel to New Jersey for tonight’s game. However, last night was not the best of cases...heck, it wasn’t even an ideal case.
Blackwood looked like a shaky, rusty goalie last night, letting four goals past on 22 shots en route to a 5-2 Utica loss. While the Comets aren’t as strong of a team as they were last season, they lost to a Laval Rocket team that is doing worse than they are in the standings! The game was essentially over with roughly seven minutes left in the first period, after Laval struck for the third time. While the Comets would add a shorthanded goal less than a minute later, the mountain was to steep to climb.
On the first two goals, Blackwood looked like a player that hasn’t been in net in six or so weeks. Both tallies were the type of soft goals that many of us have been critical of over the last few seasons, and it was discouraging to see not one, but two go in. Granted, some grace needs to be given: a first start back after injury isn’t easy. Blackwood might just need some time to find his consistency, his rhythm and to get his puck tracking back in order.
But what happens if things continue to go south?
Blackwood is the goalie that most fans of the Devils organization have been critical of, and for good reason; after he started his career off strongly, he’s been inconsistent for the past few years to the detriment of the team. Prior to his NHL time, he struggled at the AHL level as well, to the point where it seemed as though Blackwood might not make the NHL. Now, not only is the inconsistency still affecting his play at different levels, but also the injuries are beginning to stack up for Mackenzie. Of additional note with this narrative is that Blackwood is in the final season of his current contract.
With how well Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid have been playing, the Devils may finally be forced to get creative with their goalies. With few extra players being carried on the roster, perhaps the plan is to keep three goalies up with the NHL club. While more playing time in the AHL alongside Nico Daws might be a better long-term plan for Schmid, right now he’s helping a win-now team to win games That can’t be overlooked especially on a team where goaltending has been the weakness for the past few seasons. Blackwood has also been the weak point this season; out of 73 goalies in the league, Blackwood ranks 53rd in goals saved above average with a -3.89. Not exactly number that inspire confidence of him turning it around.
Even if Blackwood continues to struggled with turning his game around, I could still see the Devils keeping three goalies right now due to the need for depth in today’s NHL. The more goaltending depth teams have, the better they tend to do. If the Devils were to decide that Vanecek and Schmid are now their one and two, and did not want to carry three goaltenders, they would have to waive Blackwood to get him down to Utica. More than likely, a team with less depth or struggling goalie(s) of their own would claim him in an attempt to improve their own situation. The Devils would then be down to just the aforementioned NHL duo and Daws in the system, which doesn’t really set them up for sustained success. And yes, I know Jonathan Bernier still exists, but I’m honestly concerned that his career could be done due to injuries, which is a shame.
On the other hand, maybe the Devils do decide to pull the plug on the Blackwood experiment. Instead of simply waiving him though, maybe they try to trade him, selling it to another team as him needing a “fresh start” elsewhere. If the team doesn’t get a goalie back, it weakens the depth of the position, though the team may feel that moving on puts them in better position to give more starts to goaltenders that they have confidence can win them games. If there’s no trade partner, perhaps the Devils then do waive Mackenzie to both give him opportunity, as well as to clear up the logjam in net.
Maybe it weakens the pipeline for this season, especially if Vanecek or Schmid have to miss any time at all later in the season, but if Blackwood continues to play like he did last night, I think I’m finally at the point to say let’s move on. While he has had a few okay NHL games this season, he’s also had some flat out bad outings, while Vanecek and Schmid have given the team a chance to win almost every game they’ve appeared in. My worry is that the injuries have taken a toll on him already, and he’s been passed on the depth chart. At the same time, if he’s waived, I don’t see him going unclaimed with some of the other goalie struggles in the league. If the Devils can recoup anything for Blackwood, I say go for it.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts about what you think could/should happen if the rehab stint continues to go poorly. Should the Devils move on from Blackwood via trade? If there are no takers, should they waive him? Does it make more sense to you for the team to carry three goalies, even if they’re no longer certain one of them can win the team games? Is there another possibility you see as a solution? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!