Another week is in the books, and with that, we are now another week closer to the beginning of the offseason. After taking a look at most of the Devils forwards and defensemen the last few weeks, we’ll shift our attention to Mackenzie Blackwood, who is an RFA for the final time this offseason.
Blackwood needs a new contract, but given his injuries, struggles, the acquisition of Vitek Vanecek last summer and the rise of Akira Schmid this season, its very well possible that Blackwood has already played his final game for the Devils. But is there an avenue for him to possibly return? If so, is it worth it for the Devils to give him one last chance? Or has that time already come and gone? Let’s dive into those very important questions.
Who is Mackenzie Blackwood and what has he done as a Devil?
Mackenzie Blackwood was the Devils 2nd round pick back in 2015. After playing two seasons in the OHL with the Barrie Colts prior to being drafted, Blackwood played a third season in his +1 season and played well, posting a .921 save percentage over 43 regular season appearances. Blackwood signed his three-year ELC midway through that third OHL season and made his professional debut the following season, posting a .907 save percentage over 36 games for the Albany Devils in 2016-17. Blackwood struggled the following season to the point where he played a stretch with the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder. Blackwood rebounded the following season with a .902 save percentage for the Binghamton Devils before earning his first NHL callup.
The Devils goaltending duo of Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid at the time struggled following the team’s surprise playoff appearance in 2017-18, so they hoped their top goaltending prospect at the time would give them a spark. And he did. Blackwood posted a .918 save percentage, and while his -2.4 goals saved above expected wasn’t anything to write home about, it was better than what the Devils were getting from Schneider and Kinkaid at that point. Blackwood was legitimately good in his rookie season, and he was even better in his first full NHL season in 2019-20 with a .915 save percentage and 7.9 goals saved above expected over 47 games.
After that season, Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald rewarded Blackwood with a three-year extension worth $2.8M AAV. At the time, it was a well-deserved extension with him coming off a strong campaign in 2019-20. Unfortunately, things spiraled downhill for Blackwood from this point on.
Blackwood started out the the pandemic-shortened season on fire, with a .945 save percentage over his first five starts. He then got hit hard by COVID-19 to the point where it took him until May several months later just for him to get his breathing back to normal. The Devils had little choice but to play Blackwood as much as they did that season as UFA signing Corey Crawford opted to retire during training camp. As a result, Blackwood struggled mightily in the middle portion of that season as he dealt with COVID and a Devils team in front of him that wasn’t very good. He finished that season with a .902 save percentage and -8.5 goals saved above expected.
The following season, the Devils once again brought in a veteran goaltender to pair with Blackwood. Jonathan Bernier lasted all of 10 games before needing season-ending (career-ending?) hip surgery, leaving Blackwood to once again play more than the Devils wanted him to. Blackwood’s body wasn’t up to the task. He dealt with a neck injury, but his problematic heel was a bigger issue, as it caused him to miss a significant chunk of the 2021-22 campaign. Blackwood mentioned at the time that he struggled to push off on the heel, and his play struggled as a result with him posting a .892 save percentage and -12.7 goals saved above expected over 25 games.
That brings us to this past season. The Devils brought in Vitek Vanecek as the veteran goaltender to pair with Blackwood and the third time was the charm as Vanecek managed to stay healthy and productive before he imploded in the playoffs. Once again though, Blackwood’s body would not cooperate. Groin and MCL injuries limited him to 22 games this past season. He recorded a .893 save percentage and -0.9 goals saved above expected, and while he was healthy for the playoff run, he didn’t factor into their postseason plans at all in large part due to his struggles.
With that aforementioned 3-year deal now up, Blackwood is now a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, with the Devils retaining his rights for one more season if they so choose. According to CapFriendly, Blackwood’s qualifying offer is $3.36M, so the Devils would need to offer him that if they want to maintain control for another year. Blackwood is slated to reach unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2024.
What will Blackwood do going forward?
It’s very difficult to project what Blackwood will do moving forward.
Goaltending is a fickle position. We’ve seen guys come out of total obscurity to play out of their minds, and we’ve seen guys we think could be part of the future struggle. There is often little rhyme or reason to trying to project it, which sounds like a cop out given how analytics and statistical-driven this website is, but there’s a lot of truth to that statement.
Blackwood is 26 years old. It’s been three seasons now where he’s managed to get through a season healthy and playing well. He might be injury-prone and his performance might be unreliable as a result, but is it possible he’s just been really unlucky? Is it possible his struggles are due to poor defensive play for a large chunk of that sample size? Is it out of the realm of possibility he has a year where he puts it all together. gets his swagger back, and posts a .915 bounceback season? Of course not.
Blackwood has shown flashes from time to time. He has had games here or there the last few years where he has been very good. It would be factually inaccurate to say that he never plays well. The problem is that between the injuries and the inconsistency, you can’t rely on him. This is a problem when the backup goaltender for an NHL team is really more of a 1B and will be called upon to play 35-40 games. For every game where he might play well, he has had three where he gives up 4+ goals and not give the Devils a chance to win. I’m not saying its all Blackwood’s fault, but he does share the brunt of responsibility for his poor play.
Who are Blackwood’s comparables, what is his value, what would I do with Blackwood, and what will the Devils do?
Blackwood’s level of production is equivalent to that of a low-tier starter, at best. Among goaltenders with 20+ games this past season, his goals saved above expected is on par with Philipp Grubauer, Cam Talbot, Jake Allen, and Alex Stalock. His save percentage is on par with Petr Mrazek, Jordan Binnington, and Jacob Markstrom. This is not a murderer’s row of Hasek, Roy, and Brodeur, to put it lightly.
The best news for Blackwood is that looking around the league, there’s a lot of teams and not enough quality goaltending options to go around. Blackwood, despite all of his injuries and inconsistencies, is talented enough where he probably should be part of an NHL-tandem somewhere next season. After three subpar seasons though, he’s not in a position to command big money or significant term. His NHL career isn’t dead, but it is on life support if he wants to be anything more than an average backup.
As I mentioned, Blackwood’s qualifying offer is $3.36M for this upcoming season. I think Blackwood will be hard-pressed to do any better than that if he were to hit the open market, and I think that number is too big for the Devils to commit to it by qualifying him. I think the Devils MIGHT be able to get a late round pick from somebody if they trade him prior to qualifying him. After all, we have had a postseason this year where Grubauer, Ilya Samsonov, Laurent Brossoit, Stuart Skinner and Joonas Korpisalo all got significant playing time. Are all of those guys significantly better than Blackwood, all things being equal? I have my doubts.
If I were the Devils though, I think this situation is pretty straightforward. Vitek Vanecek is signed for two more seasons at lower-tier starter’s money, and despite his struggles in the playoffs, he’s probably not going anywhere. Akira Schmid should start the season on the NHL roster. I get that Schmid doesn’t require waivers to be sent down, but he has done enough to earn his spot on the roster. Paying a third goaltender almost $3.5M on top of that isn’t the best use of resources. It might be defensible if the Devils didn’t have Vanecek or Schmid, but they do. One could argue that the only reason Blackwood has lasted on the Devils roster for this long is because the Devils have lacked quality options to take his spot. Now they have two. I think Fitzgerald will do due diligence and call around to try to get something out of Blackwood, but at the end of the day, $3.36M is too much money for a backup goaltender, let alone a third goaltender. Trade him if you can, by all means, but I wouldn’t qualify Blackwood. I’d let him hit the open market, and I suspect Tom Fitzgerald will do the same when the trade market fails to materialize.
Mackenzie Blackwood was once viewed as the Devils goaltender of the future, but after a promising start to his career, illness and injuries have left his career at a crossroads. There might be an NHL goaltender somewhere in the enigma that is Blackwood, but the Devils aren’t really in a position where they can continue to blindly turn to him and hope that he figures it out. Their competitive window is now and they have at least two options that are better than him at the moment. Blackwood is too expensive on a qualifying offer to retain when that money is needed elsewhere, and I believe he has already played his final game as a member of the New Jersey Devils.
Where are you on Blackwood though? What do you think the Devils will do? Do you think he can still be a quality NHL goaltender? Do you agree with me that that will need to be elsewhere if that player still exists? Can the Devils potentially get something back in a trade for Blackwood, or will they have to accept letting him leave for nothing? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!