It has a been a roller-coaster ride for the New Jersey Devils goalie, who established himself as their No. 1 this season. But the Devils, who had high hopes after trading for defenseman P.K. Subban and taking center Jack Hughes No. 1 in the 2019 NHL Draft, started slowly and took too long to find their footing.
When the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the Devils (28-29-12) were 13 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets for the two wild cards into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. John Hynes was fired as coach Dec. 3, replaced by assistant Alain Nasreddine; and general manager Ray Shero was fired Jan. 12, replaced by assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald.
That's a lot of turmoil for a 23-year-old rookie. But Blackwood said the lessons should help him in the future.
"That's why goalies progress and improve, because they learn how to deal with struggle, and when they get in that situation again, they have the tools to handle it," Blackwood said from his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario. "If you never face adversity and you never struggle, then when you do have it, it's going to be a lot harder to deal with than if you've faced it in the past, so I'm thankful for the struggles I've had."
"Struggles" are a relative term for a goalie who led NHL rookies in wins (22), starts (43), saves (1,328) and shots against (1,452) with a .915 save percentage and three shutouts in 47 games after he was 10-10-0 with a .918 save percentage in 23 games last season.
Like the Devils, Blackwood started this season slowly. He was 8-9-4 with a .902 save percentage and 3.00 GAA in his first 22 games and learned quickly that trying harder rarely makes things better for a goalie.
"There was a lot of external pressure on us, something that I haven't really felt in a while," Blackwood said. "You feel the outside noise and you're like, 'Hey, I want to be the guy to make a difference in this game,' but as a goaltender by trying to make a difference, you hurt yourself. It was really my first time being NHL where things hadn't gone very good, so I had to learn how to deal with a storm and once you learn how to put things into perspective, play to your best ability and win your game, that really helped me just play in the moment and play present, and free myself up to play without worry."
Video: NJD@VGK: Blackwood denies Holden, robs Stastny
Next, Blackwood had to learn to play a lot. After he and Cory Schneider each started five games in October, Blackwood started 12 in November and played 12 in December and quickly found out an increased workload means managing his game through practice sessions and getting the rest needed as a starter.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword, but learning how to balance that is really important," Blackwood said. "You don't want to drop your practices off too much and lose the details you've built, and you don't want to overwork yourself so come February you're burnt out. It's finding that happy medium, getting extra time in practice, and keeping yourself in that perfect level of energy."
Goalie coach Colin Zulianello, who has worked with Blackwood and Thunder Bay natives Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carter Hutton of the Buffalo Sabres in the offseason, said he isn't surprised Blackwood is finding ways to improve.
Zulianello, who was the Calgary Flames development goalie coach for three seasons before leaving in 2019 to return to Thunder Bay with his family, has seen Blackwood develop quickly since being selected by the Devils in the second round (No. 42) of the 2015 NHL Draft. He'd already learned to train like a goalie, focusing on mobility rather than packing on muscle, and worked to simplify his game with New Jersey goaltending coach Roland Melanson, Zulianello and offseason coach Jon Elkin. The result is Blackwood is playing more within the confines of his crease, moving less and reaching more judiciously.
"He's not a goalie nerd in the sense he obsesses over it, but he listens, asks good questions, and is always willing to accept feedback," Zulianello said. "He doesn't miss an opportunity to learn."
Blackwood was 12 years old when he became a goalie, late by standards that now see many well established in the position before turning 10. He made his NHL debut with the Devils on Dec. 18, 2018, nine days after turning 22.
"When I switched to goaltending, it was like I was entering this whole new world, so I was taking it all in and I was probably a little bit obsessive-compulsive with it," said Blackwood, who took a year off from hockey when he was 10 to snowboard. "I was in love with it, so it was go, go, go, and it kind of boosted me."
It all bodes well for a goalie with so many natural gifts that Eddie Lack, who was with Blackwood for two seasons in the Devils organization, has for two years been telling anyone who will listen that Blackwood would be a starter in the NHL.
"I was just so confident in his athleticism," said Lack, who retired from the NHL on March 20. "The guy moves so efficiently for his size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds). It was just a matter of maturity for him."
The maturity is coming with these lessons, some learned the hard way, that should benefit Blackwood and the Devils for seasons to come.