During last June’s NHL Entry Draft, the first for general manager Ray Shero’s New Jersey administration, many Devils fans were left scratching their head when New Jersey selected goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood with an early second round selection. The North Bay, Ontario native was the first goaltender to be taken in the draft, but with New Jersey having immediate needs at almost every other position besides in goal, Devils fans were quick to question why another skater was not taken with that selection. However, many came around to Shero’s strategy of grabbing the top goalie in last year’s class. Cory Schneider, while having seen fewer miles than many goalies his age, will be 30 in two months, and the Devils’ goaltending prospects have stagnated in recent years, both in quality and quantity. It is clear Keith Kinkaid’s ceiling is at or around an NHL backup, and his age prevents him from becoming a suitable replacement for Schneider when Cory’s prime begins to wind down. Scott Wedgewood seems poised to become a career AHLer, and Maxime Clermont, who never seemed to have an NHL destiny, has left professional hockey and is heading back to Montreal to play for the Canadian Interuniversity Sport’s Concordia University. Blackwood is more than ten years younger than Schneider, and drafting him could turn out to be a stroke of genius when the Devils are eventually looking for a permanent replacement for Cory Schneider. However, Blackwood has been involved in a few incidents this season, costing him a combined 13 games to this point in suspensions.While his numbers may be reflective of someone who is one of the best at his level, his behavior on and off the ice have raised questions about what his future in hockey holds.
Aside from a difficult World Juniors, Blackwood is having a terrific year for the Barrie Colts of the OHL. His .928 save percentage is top of the league, and he sports an impressive 2.48 goals against average. His 18-9-0-0 record have helped the Barrie Colts, a team that includes a few notable prospects like Brandan Lemieux and Rasmus Andersson, pace the Central Division of the OHL’s Eastern Conference with 51 points. He is one of the best goaltenders in the CHL, and his statistical performance and play should certainly get Devils fans excited for the next generation of net minding in New Jersey.
What may be concerning to Devils fans is Blackwood’s behavior. He was suspended 8 games in December for a vicious overhand slash on Danny Desrochers of the Sudbury Wolves, and missed the first two games for Canada at the World Juniors in Finland. The dangerous play left many wondering if Blackwood’s reaction was a one-time mistake, or the result of a bad attitude or temperament that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. While I am all about old-time hockey and goaltenders standing up for themselves, Blackwood’s slash was inexcusable, and plays like that have no place in hockey at any level. He put his opponent in physical danger, and put himself and his teammates, both in Barrie and for Team Canada, in a difficult position by earning the suspension he received.
I did not have much of a reaction initially to Blackwood’s slash and suspension. I thought he made a mistake, assumed it would blow over, and figured we would not see any more negative headlines with his name attached. The suspension seemed to suit the crime, and nothing more needed to be made of it. I then heard a first-hand account from someone who took the trip to Finland for the World Juniors and had a seat directly behind the suspended Blackwood for the December 26th game against the United States. This person, with whom I communicate on an online hockey community, said that for much of the game, Blackwood was staring at his phone, mostly on Snapchat. The initial story they shared made it sound like Blackwood spent the entire game on his cell phone, but when I approached this person about using the information they shared with us for this piece, he said that yes, Blackwood did spend a lot of time on his phone, more than he should have, but the story was told in an exaggerated tone for the laughs, something we all do and can relate to. So, my initial concern did diminish a bit, but why was Blackwood on his phone at all? When you have already let your teammates and country down by foolishly getting yourself suspended, you should be spending the entire game dialed into the action, taking notes, and making sure you are mentally prepared for when your suspension is completed. It was the first time that team had been competing as a group, and Blackwood should have been making every effort to focus on every turn the puck took, every line combo and defensive pairing that took the ice, and every gear that turned in a system that the team had two weeks to learn and become comfortable with. Is his sitting on his phone during the game an indictment of his character? No. Was it a smart thing to do during the biggest tournament he has ever been involved in? Definitely not, especially considering he would have been between the pipes had he had been able to keep his temper in check a few weeks prior.
Mackenzie Blackwood looking on as the US beat Canada in the World Junior Championship on December 26th
Blackwood has again been suspended, this time for five games, for flipping a puck into the crowd after being scored on in Barrie’s 6-4 loss in Hamilton on Friday night. While this again might seem like a rather benign reaction to a disappointing play for Blackwood, he has now in the last month got himself suspended twice, costing him 13 total games. He seems to display a pattern of poor decision making, and his attitude may need to be addressed before he can succeed at the professional level.
Blackwood is not the first Devils’ prospect in recent memory to have issues with behavior and receive disciplinary penalties. Devils defenseman Jon Merrill was suspended twice during his amateur career, once by the United States National Team Development Program for inappropriate social conduct off the ice, and once more for an astronomical 22 games (initially it was decided he would serve 12 games, but it was extended) by the University of Michigan prior to the 2011-12 season for reportedly “breaking team rules”. The exact reason for the suspension never surfaced, but he certainly did not lose half of that season for being late to practice. Merrill’s off ice issues were well documented before the draft, and he slipped to the second round where New Jersey eventually drafted him. Merrill is of course a success story; Lou Lamoriello reportedly met with Jon after his last suspension with Michigan, and he has not received any other penalties for on or off-ice incidents since. He has said he learned from his mistakes, and has become a regular contributor at the NHL level for the Devils.
Ben Johnson, a Devils third round pick in 2012, has been in the news in the past couple of years over much more serious allegations of sexual assault. He was found not guilty in a Windsor, Ontario court in November, but he still stands accused of another assault that has yet to be heard in court. Both alleged assaults took place in bathrooms of Windsor bars. Guilty or not, Johnson somehow put himself in multiple situations that wound him up in court twice. With some perspective, Blackwood’s behavior does not seem so bad. He has made a few mistakes on the ice that have cost him valuable time during his development, but some fans actually find Blackwood’s edge to be a positive factor for the young goaltender.
The bad temper Blackwood has displayed over the past month has begun earning him comparisons to goalies like Patrick Roy and Ron Hextall, two of the best in their generation. Hextall was notorious for his temperament, and certainly fit the Broad Street Bullies identity his Flyers cultivated through much of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Hextall racked up 584 career penalty minutes, most coming in the first three years of his thirteen year playing career. He was involved in too many notable incidents to list here, but they include a double-handed slash he delivered at the legs of Oilers forward Kent Nilsson during the 1987 Stanley Cup Final (Hextall was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy a few days later to go along with his Vezina Trophy he would also win that year), going after Chris Chelios in the 1989 playoffs, and starting a brawl after a Flyers loss to the Devils by going after Devils’ goalie Alain Chevrier. Hextall, even after being disciplined multiple times in his rookie season, said he used to have a much worse temper and had learned to get it under control. The current Flyers general manager holds the record at his position for penalty minutes, followed by Islanders great Billy Smith. Patrick Roy, one of the sports’ goaltending greats, was also often inclined to mix it up with opponents, many times dropping the glove and blocker with opposing goalies, such as all-stars Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon, and Dominik Hasek. He brought that bite with him behind the bench when he became the head coach for the Colorado Avalanche; Roy took down the glass separating his team’s bench with Anaheim’s trying to go after Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, after having words with Ducks forward Corey Perry immediately following a game between the two clubs a few years ago. Devils great Martin Brodeur, while a bit of a flop-artist at times, was also unafraid to get involved physically with opponents, taking jabs at and going after long-time rival Sean Avery a few times during Avery’s time with the Rangers, including the play in the 2008 playoffs that led to the creation of the “Sean Avery Rule”. Former Devil Johan Hedberg wasn’t shy about fighting either, infamously standing at center ice of then GM Place challenging Avalanche goaltender David Aebischer during the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident.
Blackwood is with some notable company with other goaltenders who had strong temperaments and attitudes. Playing with an edge and toughness in goal will not only earn you a reputation with fans and players, but could provide some extra competitiveness and energy for yourself and for your team. While Blackwood needs to figure out how to use this energy in a smart and effective manner, having a goaltender in the system with an edge like that should excite Devils fans. He should be able to mature and learn from his mistakes, just as Jon Merrill did through his development, and come out a tough competitor with the skills to one day tend goal at the NHL level. I hope Queen Hank sticks around long enough to take a Blackwood right-fist to the face.