Does Colin Blackwell fit the new profile?

Center Colin Blackwell, signed as a free agent by the New York Rangers. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers need to be harder to play against

In his post mortem after the Rangers quick ouster from the Stanley Cup Qualifier, Jeff Gorton had one message about his team.  He said that the Rangers “need to  be a harder team to play against.”   He was obviously perturbed by the ease with which the team was dispatched and it was clear what his mission statement was.  With the NHL in a semi-holding pattern as teams wait for contracts to be resolved and arbitration hearings to be held, the question is, are they?

The Rangers went out and signed a handful of free agents last week.  While some could be seen as destined for the Hartford Wolf Pack, the question is whether any of the newest Rangers help fulfill the mandate.   We start by looking at center Colin Blackwell.

Blackwell is a 27 year old right-shot center from Lawrence, Massachusetts.  He was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the seventh round (#194 overall) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.  He is 5’9” and weighs 190 pounds.

Before the NHL

The Sharks drafted him after his senior year at St. John’s Prep School in Danvers, Massachusetts.  He was ranked 174th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.  He had committed to Harvard University and spent five years there.  In his sophomore year he suffered two concussions in four months and was forced to miss the rest of that year and the entire 2013-14 season.  He came back in the next season and helped Harvard to the ECAC title, scoring five goals in seven games in the tournament.

Blackwell was signed by the Sharks AHL affiliate and spent one season in their system before signing as a free agent with the AHL Rochester Americans.  While with the Amerks, he scored 17 goals and 45 points in 61 games, one of the top scorers on the team.   He also won the team’s 2017-18 “Unsung Hero” and Sportsmanship  Awards.

That season caught the attention of the Nashville Predators who signed him to a two-year contract.  He spent most of the 2018-19 season with the Milwaukee Admirals with six games in Nashville.

It was last season that he was finally able make it to the NHL.  He started the season in Milwaukee but was promoted to Nashville in January and never looked back.

In 27 games he scored  three goals and added seven assists for 10 points.  He was a depth forward for Nashville, averaging just under 11 minutes of ice time per game, but his plus/minus of +7 was one of the best on the team.

He had a really good year on faceoffs, winning 37 of 66 draws, a winning percentage of 56.1%.  He added 23 blocked shots and 43 hits and took ten minutes in penalties.  He was named to the Nashville postseason roster, but did not see any action in their four game loss to Arizona.  He was replaced in the roster by Austin Watson, a decision that didn’t sit well with many observers.

His style of play

So, does he fit the style of play the Rangers are looking for?  If you look at assessments, the answer is yes.  Before last season Dobber Hockey’s Nicholas Kawka  had this to say about Blackwell: “Blackwell has shown to be a high-energy player with great quickness and hard to knock off the puck.  His stout frame allows him to shield the puck well and maneuver well in tight situations.”

After his promotion in January, his assessment was even better. “He is playing lower in the lineup on the fourth line but brings a speed quotient and a feistiness to his game. He is hard on the forecheck and creates turnovers with his quickness.”

There was more after the regular season ended. “For a team that had seemingly lost its identity as a fast and hard-nosed team to play against, Blackwell brought just that.”

Blackwell described his style of play to the website when he was at the team’s development camp in 2017. “I’m a little bit smaller than some of the guys out there, but I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder. I play a little bit heavier game, I like to kind of get pucks down low and be that energy guy that kind of gets the boys going.”

In an interview with the Eagle-Tribune of Andover, Massachusetts, Blackwell talked about his season in Nashville.  Blackwell said “What’s been awesome for me is that I’ve turned myself into a Swiss Army knife of sorts, I’ve played with some top end players here and proved I can play with them. But I’ve also served my role as a utility guy and energy guy.

“I can play any role they need me to; all the time I spent in (AHL) Milwaukee, I did everything from first to fourth line as well as the power play and penalty kill. That really prepared me for this.”

Blackwell made his debut last season with the Predators on December 14.  Peter Laviolette was complimentary of his effort in a bad 4-1 loss to Dallas.  Of Blackwell, he said  “We need to invest more in the game, I thought he invested a lot. He played the game hard, he was fast, he was attacking the game all night, he was physical, he was passionate… the (4th line) had a lot of purpose in their game.”

Does he fit?

If the Rangers want to be a harder team to play against, a player like Blackwell was a decent pick up.  Last season he played mostly on the right wing and bounced from the second to the fourth lines.   He won’t be expected to be a big scorer, but on faceoffs and as a high energy forward, he seems to fit the bill.

Perhaps the best attribute Blackwell brings to the Rangers is his resilience.  At 27, look at the challenges he has faced.  Concussions that forced him to miss almost two seasons of college hockey.  Though drafted, he wasn’t signed by the Sharks.  He won a job with the Rochester Americans as a walk-on and used his play their to parlay that into an NHL deal with Nashville.  And then there is the fact that he is undersized by NHL standards.

Even his first NHL goal was overshadowed when Pekka Rinne became the 12th NHL goalie to score a goal.

Blackwell is not guaranteed of a job when the season starts and he could very well end up in Hartford.  If so, he will bring those same attributes to the Wolf Pack and that has to be a good thing.  Hopefully, the Rangers have been doing their homework when it comes to free agents. Based on his history, Blackwell fits the mold.