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After shaky start, Devils' Blackwood is cementing himself as a long-term solution in New Jersey

He unseated his competition and took the reins in the Devils crease, and Mackenzie Blackwood is proving why he can be part of the foundation in New Jersey with his play throughout the second half of the campaign.

A couple weeks before the trade deadline, New Jersey Devils interim GM Tom Fitzgerald met with media to discuss a pair of pre-trade freeze deals. In one, he sent captain and defenseman Andy Greene to the New York Islanders. In the other, Blake Coleman was sent to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a hefty haul that included prospect Nolan Foote. What Fitzgerald was quick to point out, though, was that neither deal was a sign of an impending scorched-earth rebuild. Rather, both were part of a retooling process.

There were a few reasons Fitzgerald saw it that way. First and foremost, it had never been the plan to send these players packing. In fact, had all gone according to plan this season, both Greene and Coleman would have been centerpieces of a Devils franchise that had used a transformative off-season to punch a ticket to the post-season for just the second time in eight seasons. But more importantly, Fitzgerald explained that there were players in place who had the ability to reverse New Jersey’s fortunes, reasons to have faith the Devils weren’t far off from competing. “We’ve got two big pieces,” Fitzgerald said, speaking of the two first-overall selections in New Jersey’s lineup, Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. “And you saw the other piece in goal tonight.”

Who Fitzgerald was referring to, of course, was Mackenzie Blackwood. Prior to Fitzgerald’s press conference, the 23-year-old netminder turned in a 52-save performance in a 4-3 victory over the wild-card contending Columbus Blue Jackets. It was Blackwood’s fourth consecutive victory, the sixth-straight game in which he had helped the Devils pick up at least a point and in his three outings since, Blackwood still hasn’t suffered a regulation defeat. And with each passing game, it’s easier to back Fitzgerald’s assertion that New Jersey has found its goaltender of the future in Blackwood.

Admittedly, backing Blackwood comes not all that long after he was given some grief around these parts. To wit, in taking the Devils goaltending to task earlier this season, it was said that Blackwood wasn’t getting the job done, particularly not for a goaltender who had been fairly well insulated. It was warranted given the numbers.

In mid-November, there were 51 goaltenders who had played at least 250 minutes and Blackwood’s 27.7 shots against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 were fewer than all but eight goaltenders. At all strengths, where 59 goaltenders had played at least 250 minutes as of Nov. 15, only six goaltenders faced fewer shots per 60 minutes than Blackwood’s rate of 28.8 shots. That made it rather difficult to defend the young Devils netminder’s .903 SP, particularly when paired with respective goals saved above average rates of minus-0.20 and minus-0.13 per 60 minutes at five-a-side and all strengths, respectively.

As the season has worn on, though, the defense in front of the New Jersey crease has steadily crumbled. Allowing the eighth-fewest shots against at 5-on-5 and possessing the sixth-best all-strengths average in the NHL through mid-November, only two teams have allowed a higher rate of shots against at five-a-side and only three at all strengths in the time since. That’s been reflected in Blackwood’s per-60-minute rates, which have skyrocketed. Once among the least-often tested goaltenders, the 32.9 shots against per 60 minutes Blackwood has faced at 5-on-5 over the course of the entire season thus far now ranks ninth-highest in the NHL. At all strengths, the 32.4 shots he faces per hour of ice time is fewer than only 16 keepers.

But Blackwood’s play? It has only improved as New Jersey’s hopes have faded and the rubber his flown his way with an increased frequency. In fact, Blackwood’s numbers have improved to such an extent that he could legitimately be considered among the handful of goaltenders who have turned in the best campaigns.

Consider that since his early season woes, Blackwood has played his way into the conversation with some of the cream of the league’s crease crop. At 5-on-5, Blackwood’s .931 SP puts him level with four others for the sixth-best mark in the NHL, but he ranks ahead of any other netminder with at least 40 appearances. Likewise, his 0.39 GSAA per 60 minutes is sixth-best in the NHL, ahead of Vezina Trophy hopefuls such as Connor Hellebuyck (0.29) and Tristan Jarry (0.38). It should also be noted that Blackwood has been among the best keepers when it comes to stopping prime opportunities, as well. The only starting goaltender with a better high-danger save percentage at five-a-side than Blackwood (.873) is Tuukka Rask (.881). The numbers take a dip at all strengths, but Blackwood still ranks 17th in SP (.916), 14th in GSAA (0.24) and eighth in HDSP (.836).

The thing is, too, that there’s more meat on this bone than Blackwood’s play over the past few months. Across the past two seasons, Blackwood is one of 60 goaltenders with at least 1,500 minutes played at five-a-side, ranking 38th with 2,957 minutes played. Among those goaltenders, Blackwood ranks sixth in shots against (32.7), yet, per 60 minutes, is tied for the eighth-best SP (.929) with the likes of Jarry, Pekka Rinne, Darcy Kuemper and Jordan Binnington and has a GSAA(0.33) that ranks behind only Robin Lehner (0.36), Rask (0.37), Philipp Grubauer (0.38), Ben Bishop (0.38), Thomas Greiss (0.44) and Anton Khudobin (0.54).

So, sure, while the Devils seem amenable to giving Cory Schneider another shot – he posted a 34-save shutout Sunday and has played three of the team’s past four games – New Jersey seems certain to hand Blackwood, a pending restricted free agent, a nice, new pact and the opportunity to take the reins in the crease. And if this season is the precursor to further success, the Devils can start looking for ways to patch the rest of the holes in their roster knowing that the blue paint is in good hands.

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