Mackenzie Blackwood Breeds Confidence For New Jersey Devils

Mackenzie Blackwood #29 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the New York Rangers at the Prudential Center on September 30, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Mackenzie Blackwood #29 of the New Jersey Devils skates against the New York Rangers at the Prudential Center on September 30, 2022 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

There is one X-factor for the New Jersey Devils this season. We expect Jack Hughes to take a step towards stardom. We hope Nico Hischier takes a step forward offensively. Alexander Holtz looks like he’s making the team after working hard in the offseason, and the defense looks like the best unit on paper since the early 2000s. However, Devils fans really care about one thing more than anything.

The goalie position ruined the Devils last season. Out of players who had at least five starts, Andrew Hammond had the eighth worst save percentage, Jon Gillies had the ninth worst, Mackenzie Blackwood had the 11th worst goals saved above average, and the Devils as a team had the second worst save percentage (all stats coming from Natural Stat Trick).

There are two major reasons for this situation. On top of everything, an impossible list of injuries occurred. Mackenzie Blackwood hurt his heel in the preseason. He was never the same. Jonathan Bernier hurt his hip and he might never be the same. Scott Wedgewood was placed on waivers for some unknown reason. That really hurt the Devils since he was very successful last season for the Arizona Coyotes and Dallas Stars.

This season, Blackwood appears to be fully healthy. The Devils also traded for Vitek Vanecek from the Washington Capitals. The duo looks to right the ship for New Jersey. Also, Bernier is already practicing, so the team might try out a three-headed monster in net. That could be an issue come the postseason, but let’s worry about that if they even get there.

So far this preseason, the goalies have been playing incredibly well. Blackwood’s performance especially has been great to see. He’s faced 10 high-danger shots, and he saved them all. He has a .943 save percentage in two games, and he has the 14th best goals saved above average.

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Blackwood looked impressive against the Rangers on Friday. Despite taking the loss, he kept a listless Devils team in the game for 60 minutes. That’s what Lindy Ruff needs from his goalie. On nights when the Devils don’t have “it”, they need someone to lift them up by themselves. The goalie needs to do that.

Blackwood showed he could do that at one point in his career, but that was before the pandemic. That should tell you how long it’s been since we’ve had supreme confidence in Blackwood’s ability to lift this team on his shoulders. However, Blackwood is still just 25 years old. He should be entering his prime this season. Everything before this could be considered development.

Look at some of the other starting goalies around the league. Darcy Kuemper didn’t become a legit backup until he was 23 years old. Connor Hellebuyck didn’t hit his stride until he was 24 years old. Ilya Sorokin didn’t even come to the U.S. until he was 25 years old. Blackwood is on the right track. He took some detours, but it’s too early to give up on him because of a few bad years.

There were rumors that the Devils were shopping Blackwood this offseason, but at the end of the day, they kept the relationship together. There were more issues than just on-ice performance. The whole vaccine issue became a distraction, but Blackwood ended up getting the shot for the best of his teammates (and the world in general). So, that’s a non-issue at this point.

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He’s healthy for the first time in a long time. While that can change in an instant, at this point he’s exactly what the Devils need. Expect the Devils to start Blackwood opening night. If he can stay healthy, this could put the Devils in playoff contention. If he’s not, then the Devils have an uphill climb to get out of the rebuild.