Newark, NJ – Coming into the 2022-23 season, the New Jersey Devils planned on deploying Vitek Vanecek and Mackenzie Blackwood as their goaltending tandem. However, exiting the season, Vanecek’s place was still secure, yet it was Akira Schmid who completed the tandem instead of Blackwood. Heading into restricted free agency, we’ll explore six trade destinations for Blackwood this summer.
The injury bug bit Blackwood again in 2022-23. The 26-year-old netminder got off to a pretty decent start registering a 4-2-0 record in his first six games, allowing just two goals or fewer in four of those six starts. In his seventh start of the season, Blackwood suffered an MCL sprain that caused him to miss the next six-plus weeks. In his absence, Vanecek established himself as the Devils starting goaltender. Schmid established he had what it took to at least remain Vanecek’s backup.
Blackwood eventually returned and had some really high points where you saw glimpses of the goaltender that was supposed to man Team Canada’s crease at the 2020 Bejing Olympics. He also had some really low points that made you question if you were even watching the same goaltender.
Later in the season, a pulled groin landed Blackwood on the injured reserve again for another five-plus weeks. When he finally returned in late March, it was clear the Devils were running with Vanecek and Schmid in the postseason.
Blackwood didn’t play at all in the Devils’ 13 playoff games between April and May. Looking ahead, Blackwood says he’s open to a return to the Devils. However, he also made it clear he wants the opportunity to play and that might not be in the cards in New Jersey.
“I’ve been here for my entire NHL career so far,” Blackwood stated. “I love the team. I love all the guys so it would be hard to leave that. But, at the end of the day, you want to go where the opportunity is. So it depends on a couple of things, right? But obviously, if there’s an opportunity (to play here) then absolutely.
Assuming Vanecek and Schmid are the Devils duo in the crease next season, that leaves Blackwood as the odd-man out. As a restricted free agent, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald has the opportunity to trade his rights. So where could he land?
New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have elite goaltending. Ilya Sorokin is a Vezina Finalist and Semyon Varlamov is a luxury backup. Yet, the latter is approaching unrestricted free agency and may choose to explore the opportunity as another team’s No.1 netminder. At 35 years old, it’s certainly going to be his last shot to do that in free agency.
Ilya Sorokin ranked near the top of the NHL in games played (t-3rd, 62), save percentage (3rd, .924), goals-against average (6th, 2.34), saves (6th, 1,699) and wins (9th, 31) to help the @NYIslanders qualify for the playoffs. #NHLAwards#NHLStats: https://t.co/C5DhpYm1yV pic.twitter.com/8rpKE97qf4
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 11, 2023
If Varlamov moves on from the Islanders, they’ll be in need of a backup goaltender. Realistically, Blackwood is likely to benefit from playing fewer games. Unfortunately for him, he’s had bad luck staying healthy. Fewer games on Blackwood’s workload should keep him fresh enough to provide sufficient backup for Sorokin.
Sorokin started 60 games for the Islanders last season and put together phenomenal numbers. The 27-year-old Russian goaltender totaled 2.34 goals against average and a .924 save percentage. According to MoneyPuck, Sorokin ranked third best among goaltenders making 38.7 goals saved above expected. In short, he earned his Vezina nomination.
That only required Varlamov to start 20 games this season. However, when the Islanders reached the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was evident Sorokin wasn’t his usual self. Burnout is a real thing and Sorokin just may have been experiencing it. Still, he probably doesn’t need to take too much off his workload. If Blackwood can give the Islanders somewhere between 22 and 25 starts, that should be enough to keep Sorokin fresh in the postseason. Blackwood happened to make 22 starts in 2022-23, albeit, inconsistently while dealing with injuries.
Long Island is a best-case scenario for Blackwood, too. It’s not too far from New Jersey and he wouldn’t have to move his family too far.
Kyle Dubas is now President of Hockey Operations of the Pittsburgh Penguins. If history has taught us anything, Dubas is unafraid to make trades for goaltenders who need some tender, love, and care. The former Maple Leafs GM acquired Matt Murray last summer, a goaltender with plenty of injury history. He also signed Ilya Samsonov who happened to work out better than Murray.
Tristan Jarry is headed for unrestricted free agency. It feels unlikely he’ll return to Pittsburgh following his polarizing tenure. Casey DeSmith remains with one year on his contract. The 31-year-old goaltender has shown the ability to handle split workloads, something that could work for Blackwood. Last season, DeSmith started 33 games and totaled a 3.17 GAA and .905 SV%.
With no help coming in the pipeline, acquiring Blackwood could make some sense. The Penguins’ roster is aging and Blackwood makes them younger. Plucking him from New Jersey and placing him in Pittsburgh’s crease could create healthy competition.
There aren’t any upgrades over Jarry on the UFA market. Blackwood could be a cheap option with a high upside for Dubas to gamble on in a risk/reward situation.
Growing up in Thunder Bay, Ottawa is a lot closer to home than New Jersey. The truth of the matter is the Ottawa Senators are on the upswing. They couldn’t quite claim a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season, but certainly put themselves on the map with how well the young group played.
#Sens GM Pierre Dorion says goalie Cam Talbot will not be back next season.
— Claire Hanna (@clahanna) April 17, 2023
Senators GM Pierre Dorion already established 35-year-old goaltender Cam Talbot will not return to Ottawa. That means the Senators will have an opening behind Anton Forsberg in net. 22-year-old Mads Sogaard might be ready to at least be Forsberg’s backup at the NHL level. However, it also wouldn’t hurt to let him marinate in Belville for a little while longer. Last season Sogaard registered a 3.47 GAA and a .893 SV% at the American Hockey League level. In 19 games at the varsity level, Sogaard registers a 3.32 GAA and .889 SV%.
Blackwood could serve Ottawa better next season while Sogaard continues to develop in the AHL. The Senators are looking to take another step forward and will need NHL experience.
Forsberg did only start 28 games last season, however, suffered MCL tears in both knees. According to Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen, Forsberg will be back in July. He should be ready to start the 2023-24 season. It might be a high-risk, high-reward situation for Ottawa, but if he can stay healthy Blackwood could be a serviceable backup or 1B option for Ottawa.
Winnipeg is a lot closer to Thunder Bay than Ottawa. Maybe this one isn’t as realistic of a scenario, but the Winnipeg Jets are looking to make changes. Yet, Michael Russo and Eric Duhatschek via The Athletic reported two weeks ago that the Devils could take a swing at Connor Hellebuyck.
If Fitzgerald wants to improve his goaltending situation, who better than the Vezina Finalist? Now, of course, it won’t be a one-for-one trade. The Devils will need to attach a few more significant assets to Blackwood in order to retrieve Hellebuyck.
Hellebuyck’s time in Winnipeg could be coming to an end. The 30-year-old goaltender already made it clear to the Winnipeg organization that he’s uninterested in being part of a rebuild.
“My main goal is to win a Stanley Cup and I’m starting to run out of time and I can feel it,” Hellebuyck told the media at exit interviews.
What a save by Connor Hellebuyck. 😮 pic.twitter.com/L5Acrw7Qbb
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 21, 2023
While the Jets haven’t made any decisions yet, the elite goaltender is one of their most valuable trade chips.
The Devils have a number of intriguing prospects such as Alexander Holtz they could attach to Blackwood and draft picks in order to update their goaltending. As of now, the Jets don’t have another NHL goaltender under contract. Blackwood may benefit from a fresh start a little closer to home. In a significant package going to the Jets for Hellebuyck, Winnipeg could be a viable destination for Blackwood.
Chicago Blackhawks or San Jose Sharks
The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks are in the same boat. Both rebuilding teams have just one goaltender on the roster whose contract is set to expire in summer of 2024.
Although Chicago is likely drafting Connor Bedard, they’re still ways away from competing in the playoffs. The same can be said of the Sharks and whoever they select fourth overall. At 26 years old, Blackwood should still be appealing to a rebuilding team given the promise he displayed not too long ago in 2019-20.
It won’t cost either team much as his health remains Blackwood’s issue. However, there’s no reason the Devils can’t retrieve a third or fourth-round pick if the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to retrieve a second-round pick for Peter Mrazek last summer. There remains the option that Blackwood won’t get qualified and can head to unrestricted free agency, but perhaps a team steps up to the plate to get their own exclusive negotiating window.