We have lived through the golden age of goaltending on the banks of the Hudson, more than two decades of it through which first Mike Richter then Henrik Lundqvist challenged Martin Brodeur for supremacy, sometimes even succeeding.
Now, we may be set up for a Chapter 2, though please understand the bar set by these three decorated netminders remains a target that aspiring young’uns Igor Shesterkin and Mackenzie Blackwood can only hope to approach.
Shesterkin may be the one who came to New York with all of the hype, but it sure appears as if Blackwood brought his star with him to New Jersey, too. You look at Blackwood, who at age 24 has quickly become the backbone of the young, exciting and sometimes even captivating Devils, and you see …
“I see a goalie who understands the NHL game, stays within himself and has the athletic ability to make the extra save,” Brodeur himself, who holds the title of Hockey Operations Executive VP and Advisor, told Slap Shots. “He understands his game, knows his limits, protects his weaknesses and uses his strengths.
“He’s always in control.”
And that’s it. That’s what strikes you when watching this Devils team that doesn’t quite have Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and Ken Daneyko operating seamlessly in its own end of the ice. When there is trouble, and there often is plenty, Blackwood is always composed and owns both the mental and physical tools to shut it down. He cools the temperature.
He is 6-foot-4, 225, and these are not at all parentheticals.
“He’s big,” Brodeur said. “I mean, he’s not one of these guys who looks big because of his equipment. He’s as big when he’s just wearing normal clothes.”
The 24-year-old from Thunder Bay was the highest ranked North American goaltender of his 2015 draft class when the Devils selected him 48th overall. There has been a steady progression since, two-plus seasons in the AHL, graduation to the NHL midway through 2018-19, and the step up to No. 1 a year ago, when he went 22-14-8 with a .915 save percentage and 2.77 GAA with a pretty bad team.
This year, his season interrupted by COVID-19 that kept him off the ice for nearly a month, he was 4-0-1/.945/1.94 entering Saturday’s afternoon match against the Sabres. The save percentage is not a typographical error.
“We brought in a new goalie coach this year with Dave Rogalski and I think that’s been a big part of Mackenzie’s growth,” Brodeur said. “Mackenzie is a workhorse, he always wants to get better. He provides a lot of confidence for the team with the way he is able to handle everything.
“It’s funny. We didn’t want to put too much on him this year, and that’s why we signed Corey Crawford as a free agent. We expected it to be a 1A/1B situation. But that didn’t work out the way we thought, did it?”
Not quite. Crawford, the 36-year-old two-time Cup winner from Chicago who’d dealt with post-concussion issues the past couple of years, retired before the season commenced. That left the net to Blackwood — who, by the way, is on the first year of an appropriate but wildly team-friendly contract for a $2.8 million average annual value.
“Mackenzie is a workhorse,” said Brodeur, who ought to know one when he sees one. “He embraces his role, he wants to be the guy. He’s still learning but he has all the qualities of a No. 1. He doesn’t try and do too much. He has a calming influence on the team. And he can be dominant.”
If the NHL does, as planned, participate in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, Carey Price would be expected to reprise his role as Canada’s Goaltender he previously played winning gold in Sochi 2014 (and in the 2016 World Cup). The Flyers’ Carter Hart appears to be the popular choice to be the backup, but no one should discount Blackwood. The Blues’ Jordan Binnington is also a candidate.
“Carter Hart is a hell of a goalie, but I would hope that Mackenzie is considered for the Olympic team,” said Brodeur, a double gold medal winner. “Being a part of Hockey Canada was such an important part of my career, even being the third goalie at the start really helped me in my development.
“Mackenzie has played in the World Juniors and the World Championships, so Hockey Canada knows him, and that’s important. Those two young guys, Hart and Mackenzie, they’re the future after Carey.”
But Blackwood is more than the future in New Jersey and more than one-half of what is shaping up to become the Next Gen Battle of the Hudson. He is the present.
The outdoor games in Lake Tahoe this weekend no doubt represent the most picturesque setting for an NHL contest at least since the Cleveland Barons pulled up stakes and abandoned their building in Richfield, Ohio.
But, this year aside, I’m not quite sure what the purpose is of finding remote locations for the league’s outdoor extravaganzas.
The NHL sells these events as a return to the game’s roots, but the outdoor games truly represent winter carnivals of hockey that are celebrated by fans embracing the elements and the experience while packing one stadium after another.
When the Rangers played the Devils and Islanders within four days at Yankee Stadium in the 2014 Stadium Series, the glory wasn’t that they were skating on an outdoor pond, but that more than 50,000 fans poured into the ballpark for each game. It was a celebration by and of the fans. That just isn’t possible in these remote and picturesque settings.
Now just wait a second. The Sabres are paying Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner a combined average of $27 million per year and have — what’s this? — all of three goals to show for it?
Is anyone else old enough to remember when Matt Duchene was supposed to be a difference-maker?
Finally, just let me say that I hope everyone in the PHWA approves of this week’s subject matter.