Mackenzie Blackwood is one of the best young goalies in the NHL. Yeah, not exactly a secret, and New Jersey Devils fans have been making that known for a few years now.
Young goalies like Philadelphia's Carter Hart, NY Rangers' Igor Shesterkin and NY Islanders' Ilya Sorokin have earned a lot of praise, and for good reason. They all came to the NHL and made an immediate impact after staking their claims as some of the best top young goaltenders in the world. They've had their struggles, but are still generally seen as the future of the position in the NHL. But why isn't Blackwood talked about more?
So far, the 24-year-old goalie is 4-0-1 after beating Boston on Thursday, keeping a perfect regulation record while still maintaining his post as one of the NHL's top goalies this year. The smaller sample size is something to notice, but his .972 save percentage (first among goalies with 5+ starts, per Natural Stat Trick) and 5.75 goals-saved-above average gives credence to that belief. Blackwood's GSAA-per-60 is also tops at 1.49 and only Carey Price (.921) has a better high-danger save percentage at even strength than Blackwood (.920).
In case you couldn't figure it out based on his placement in those categories, Blackwood leads all U-25 goaltenders in that space.
Blackwood has been the man the Devils have needed between the pipes for a while. Cory Schneider had some moments after Martin Brodeur moved to St. Louis, but it was short-lived and was eventually phased out in favor of Blackwood. Blackwood was a workhorse in the OHL with Barrie before getting drafted 42nd overall in 2015, the second goalie to be selected behind Washington's Ilya Samsonov at 22nd overall. Blackwood spent two years in the AHL and ECHL before finally getting his first real crack of action in 2018-19, going 10-10-0 for a bottom-feeding franchise that went on to select Jack Hughes first overall in the summer.
But since then, Blackwood has been a tough man to slow down.
Since Feb. 1, 2020, Blackwood holds an 11-2-1 record, making him one of the league's best goaltenders in that span. His 2.14 wins above replacement in 2019-20 (fifth among goalies with at least 40 games played) supports that.
At this point, it's not crazy to suggest that Blackwood could be one of Canada's three goaltenders for the 2022 Olympics. Carey Price will likely be the No. 1 guy once again despite a so-so start to the 2020-21 season, but the backup role could go to a young guy like Hart or Blackwood – two names that should compete for the starting role for the 2026 and 2030 tournaments.
The Devils have the pieces to become a threat in a few year's time. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Ty Smith are all young guns with real star potential, and Hischier even showcased that a bit last season. But the backbone could be the play of Blackwood – a second-year starter that continues to impress with every start.
Blackwood's play behind a mediocre lineup has given the Devils some hope – the Devils are still in shooting range of a playoff spot in the East Division. Blackwood has made at least 35 saves three times this season, including a 47-save, 50-shot win over the Rangers early in the season. Blackwood has only played Boston and the Rangers this season so it will be interesting to see how he fares against the rest of the league, but with the Devils meeting up with Buffalo in three of the next four games, we could see some further stat-padding and a potential shot up the standings for the Devils.
Blackwood's return from missing time due to COVID-19 protocol has been a success and I fully expect the Devils to ride him as much as possible moving forward this season. The addition of Corey Crawford was supposed to be big from a mentorship side of things and to give the Devils a reliable backup when Blackwood needed a rest. Crawford's surprise retirement muddied the waters a bit, but Blackwood has made the Devils a team you don't necessarily want to mess with when he's in the crease.