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Blackwood a top goalie despite short time in net

by Evan Sporer / NHL.com

Mackenzie Blackwood wasn't a goalie. He almost wasn't a hockey player.

Blackwood, the top-rated North American goalie in the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings for the 2015 NHL Draft, grew up like many kids, trying his hand at multiple sports. At age 9 Blackwood said he stopped playing hockey to focus on lacrosse and snowboarding.

The hiatus was relatively short-lived, as a year later he said he was back to playing in house leagues in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

But even then he wasn't a goalie. That didn't come until at age 12, when Blackwood's VP Bearcats lost their goalie and needed someone to play the position.

"I switched at 12 because our goalie got hurt," Blackwood told NHL.com. "I can't remember if he got hurt or he just quit. For the rest of the year I played goalie and I really enjoyed it.

"It was something that I guess I had a natural inclination for right away."

The switch has paid off as now, at age 18, Blackwood figures to be one of the first goalies selected in the 2015 draft. Having played his position for a relatively short period of time, Blackwood still is working hard and has room to grow, something he and the people around him are aware of.

"He became a goalie later as a child where most kids start at 8 or 9," Mike Rosati, Blackwood's goalie coach on his current team, the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, told NHL.com. "His minor-midget year, the year we drafted him, was only his second year of triple-A hockey and his fourth year as a goalie.

"Coming into the OHL his rookie year he did not see a lot of hockey games as a child growing up as a goalie. He's really learned the position well with time."

Blackwood joined Barrie for the 2013-14 season as a long shot to be the starting goalie. He was young, still learning the positing and competing against an incumbent starter and another young, more experienced goalie.

It didn't take long though for Blackwood to leapfrog them to take over as the No. 1.

"It wasn't very hard to tell right off the start that he was going to be able to maintain a regular playing role and taking over that No. 1 job," Rosati said. "We decided to give him the chance, again understanding there might be some rough games along the way as he gained experience and matured."

Now in his second season with Barrie, Blackwood not only is one of the best goaltenders in the OHL, he's emerged as arguably the best goalie available for the 2015 draft. At 6-foot-4, Blackwood has the frame of a bigger goalie, and the speed and agility that complements his size and makes him difficult to beat.

"Mackenzie's overall net coverage is excellent. His size and explosive leg power pushes is a great asset in his lateral ability," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "He is able to get across laterally with ease and very quickly, always being in control.

"Another advantage is when he drops in the butterfly he covers the lower corners post-to-post with his excellent leg extension while sealing the ice. While he's in the butterfly he also keeps his upper body in an upright position with his glove in the proper position as well to cover the upper half of the net. There are not many holes for the shooters to shoot at."

Blackwood said he still is finding ways to improve his game. He and Rosati spent the summer working on catching pucks, something his coach said has turned from a weakness into one of his biggest strengths.

While he is trying to ignore all the draft talk, Blackwood said he is excited for that day to come. He has plenty of people to help him until it does: His coach, Dale Hawerchuk, was the No. 1 pick of the 1981 NHL Draft; his former teammate, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, was the No. 1 pick of the 2014 NHL Draft and is one of the top rookies in the NHL this season.

"[Ekblad] is out there pretty much living everyone's dream," Blackwood said. "As far as the draft, he hasn't really told me much about that.

"He congratulates me and praises me on things I didn't even know he was looking out for, so it's just nice to have a guy like that."

What might be the most exciting about Blackwood is the unknown. He doesn't turn 19 until December, and in some respects still is learning how to play his position. Even playing at his height is relatively new: Blackwood said he was average height until a growth spurt in ninth grade made him taller than his peers.

"Obviously the bigger you are the more net you take up. It helps to fill the net as much as you can," said Blackwood, who said he models his game after 6-foot-5 Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators and 6-4 Mike Smith of the Arizona Coyotes. "If you can just get your body in front of the puck it definitely makes a big difference, and being a little bigger too because the more net you take up the easier it is to make a save."

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