Pretty much the best thing that can be said about tonight’s 2-1 loss in Columbus is just two words – Mackenzie Blackwood. Making his first NHL start tonight, the 2015 second-round pick exceeded expectations in a strong 36-save debut that actually earned him a third star from the Columbus media in defeat. It might not be too much of a stretch to say this was the best performance by any Devils goaltender this year, with of course the only black mark on it being that this joke of a team couldn’t get the kid a better, more deserved result out of tonight. Considering he only gave up two goals (one on a penalty shot!) AND made the ridiculous save below in the third period, he certainly did all he could to win the game.
Of course our lone goal came from Taylor Hall in another dissapointing night for Devils fans. At least if you still care about getting wins. I recognize this stretch of a bad season all too well as a fan, when talk goes from how this team can make the playoffs to how they can better their draft position. Personally I think it’s a waste of time, although in a craven sense nights like tonight in theory are only going to help long-term cause you get both a piece of the future playing well and the team ‘improving’ its draft odds by losing.
The problem I have with that mindset – and tonight’s as good a night as any to get on this soapbox, hence my theme title – is when fans root for tanking it leaves out two very important things. One, when the team loses it’s less likely players you have on your current roster that matter (re: younger guys who are in theory part of the future) are playing well. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, you generally don’t get to have both the younger players on the roster playing well and simultaneously the team losing. Most of the time it doesn’t work that way and hasn’t so far this season for the most part although in a way it did tonight, and also with my Jets last Sunday given Sam Darnold’s performance in a loss there. I have rooted for ‘meaningless’ wins when it shows growth from younger players already on the roster, sometimes we can lose the forest for the trees as fans worrying about the almighty draft pick.
My second problem with the tank talk is more practical, you’re only improving your draft odds, not as much your draft position. The best pick you can absolutely assure yourself of is four given the recent triple lottery that the NHL’s recently introduced – in one of the rare things the suits have gotten right. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche who had a hideous 48-point season two years ago, the worst non-expansion one in quite some time and yet got bumped all the way down to fourth because they didn’t win a single lottery despite the best odds. With a lottery being a lot more of a tank-proof lottery, it’s an exercise in futility to root against the team hoping for a better pick only to find the pick isn’t quite what you’d hoped for. This isn’t the NFL or MLB where where you finish is actually where you draft. Even when you do get a lottery win that doesn’t guarantee anything unless it’s a draft with a pure generational talent like Sidney Crosby.
You need look no further than the Devils, who supposedly ruined their draft position dropping from 3rd to 5th worst a couple years ago with a ‘meaningless’ John Moore OT goal against the Flyers. So what happened? Winning the lottery out of the 5-hole and getting Nico Hischier, that’s what happened. Sometimes fate will throw you a bone. It’s gonna be hard to watch this team with fifty semi-meaningless games left but there are still things to look for as a fan – performances like Blackwood tonight chief among them. You want to see things from guys you hope will be part of the solution in future years. If seeing growth from guys like Nico, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher, etc ‘costs’ us a couple of spots in the lottery down the stretch, so be it. Of course if we’re not even getting that…then our problems go way beyond what one draft pick would solve anyway.
In terms of Blackwood himself, his story is pretty redeeming after a horrible AHL season last year that got him briefly demoted to the ECHL. Usually when guys have an .882 save percentage and a 3.41 GAA in the AHL, that doesn’t portend future success in the NHL. For whatever reason – development, a rumored eye issue last year? – Blackwood’s done a 180 degree turnaround this season with a solid AHL campaign (2.69 GAA, .911 save percentage) for another mediocre Binghamton team. It took a spectacular confluence of events to get him his first NHL start so soon after he finished his last year in the ECHL – starting with Keith Kinkaid shouldering too much of the load already, supposed starter Cory Schneider’s meltdown and emergency fill-in Eddie Lack also hurt in Binghamton.
In a sense I with they had waited till tomorrow’s home game against Ottawa to give Blackwood his first start at home, then again I’m not going anyway since meeting a friend for his birthday drinks uptown tomorrow night is a more satisfactory use of my time than watching this team right now. Besides, I already sold my pair of tickets long ago, figuring I could just use a free voucher ticket but now that this has come up I’m not even gonna use the voucher. I’ll be back at the Rock soon enough on Sunday anyway – trading off a throwaway Jets game on TV for a throwaway Devils game in person.