The Rangers find themselves in some rarefied air when it comes to their prospect pool and the future of the team. Up front Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko lead the way with Vitali Kravtsov close behind them. On the blue line Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller are set to bolster a defense corps led by the 21-year old Adam Fox, and in goal the team seems ready to pass the torch from Henrik Lundqvist to Igor Shesterkin.
That wasn’t always the case though and for a majority of the early to mid 2000s, the Rangers went a long time trying to find their next cornerstones. This series is going to shed a light on some of those players, starting with the most important position; a goaltender.
If you look at the modern telling of Rangers’ history you would be forgiven if you thought the Rangers went directly from former franchise goalie Mike Richter directly to Henrik Lundqvist with a cameo from Kevin Weekes here and there but it wasn’t exactly a smooth A-to-B transition. Not even close.
In fact the list goalies to start a game between Mike Richter’s last game as a Ranger and Henrik’s 1st features such names as Johan Holmqvist, Jussi Markkanen, Jason LaBarbera, Jamie McLennan, Steve Valiquette, Kevin Weekes, and Dan Blackburn. It’s a very...eclectic list to say the least but I want to focus on that last name, Dan Blackburn. Drafted 10th overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Blackburn was supposed to be the future between the pipes for the Rangers but he only lasted two seasons on Broadway, so what happened?
To tell the story of Dan Blackburn, we have to go back to the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The 2000-01 season was not a kind one for the Rangers; they picked up just 72 points going 33-43-5 (ties were a thing way back when) over the 82 game campaign while boasting a roster that was, on average, 29.5 years old which was two years over the NHL average. That being said, the Rangers were actually a pretty strong offensive team as the Blueshirts were ninth in the NHL in scoring, led by Brian Leetch’s 79 point campaign. The problem was, they just couldn’t keep the puck out of the net to save their lives. The Rangers had the worst goals against among the NHL’s 30 teams and used six different goalies through the course of the season as Mike Richter body began to breakdown and he suffered a torn ACL in Feburary of 2001 that resulted in his 2nd knee surgery in less than a calendar year.
So, with Richter out the Rangers turned to a cadre of netminders that included what was left of old foe Kirk McLean, Guy Hebert, claimed off of waivers from Anaheim, Jason LaBarbera, Johan Holmqvist, and Vitali Yeremeyev. Needless to say, it didn’t go well for the Broadway Blueshirts and the front office began to think about a future in goal that didn’t include their Stanley Cup winning stalwart in Richter.
While all of this was going on in Manhattan, Dan Blackburn was solidifying his draft stock playing for the Kootenay Ice in the WHL, playing his way into being one of the two top goalies in the draft right alongside Pascal LeClaire of the QMJHL. In his final season leading up to the draft, Blackburn put up a 33-14-2 campaign with a .907 save percentage in 50 games which was actually down from his 34-8-7 and .912 in 51 games the year prior.
So with all of this in mind, the Rangers and the rest of the NHL made their way to Sunrise, Florida for the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. The Atlanta Thrashers had the 1st overall pick and selected current Washington Capital Ilya Kovalchuck, seven picks later the Columbus Blue Jackets nabbed LeClaire out of Halifax and then with the 10th overall pick the Rangers walked up to the podium and selected Dan Blackburn. The Rangers were dead set on getting one of either LeClaire or Blackburn as they were goalie hunting when they walked up to the stage in Florida.
With their goalie of the future acquired and their longtime starter healing up from knee surgery the Rangers felt that they were set in goal, in fact Glen Sather told both McLean who served as Richter’s back up for two seasons, and Guy Hebert to look elsewhere in free agency. The Rangers were going into the 2001-02 season with a 35 year old Richter and an 18 year old Dan Blackburn, the present and the future right there.
Richter actually bounced back from his surgery shortened 2000-01 season and picked up 55 starts on Broadway, but the results weren’t great as the 35 year old had a losing record at 24-26-4 with a .906 save percentage. However, this was another season that ended prematurely for Richter as he suffered a horrifying fractured skull after taking a hard, rising slap shot to the side of the head against the Atlanta Thrashers.
As for the 18-year-old Blackburn, his first professional season ended with 31 games played, going 12-16-0 and putting up a .898 save percentage. Overall, not a bad first season for the young goalie especially since he was playing behind a defense that included a 32-year-old Igor Ulanov, 33-year-old Vladimir Malakhov, and a 34-year-old Sylvain Lefebvre.
With his first NHL season under his belt, Blackburn was set to reprise his role as the Rangers’ backup once again behind Richter and continue to learn from one of the greatest goaltenders to suit up in New York. Everything was going according to plan in New York as the team got set for the 2002-03 season.
Thirteen games into the new campaign, Mike Richter took a knee to head from the Edmonton Oilers’ Todd Marchant — the player the Blueshirts traded to the Oilers in 1994 for Craig MacTavish — and suffered what would end up being a career-ending concussion. Suddenly, the Rangers plan in goal just went out the window and a 19-year-old Dan Blackburn was thrust into the starter’s role. In fact, the very next night against the Flames, Blackburn pitched his first and only career shutout right when the team needed it the most. Dan’s starter role wouldn’t last long though, as about a month later, December 9th to be exact, the Rangers traded for veteran goalie Mike Dunham from the Nashville Predators. With Dunham now in the starter’s role Blackburn went back to the backup position and continued to learn and develop at the NHL level, however his second season ended with another losing record (8-16-4) and a .890 save percentage in 32 games.
Now we get to the saddest part of this story. During the 2003 offseason, right before Rangers camp was set to open, Dan Blackburn suffered a freak shoulder injury while lifting weights. The injury turned out to be a severe nerve issue in Blackburn’s left shoulder that prevented him from fully closing his hand, thus leaving him unable to close his glove when stopping a puck. At just 21-years-old, Blackburn tried to attempt a comeback by wearing two blockers and played 12 games in 2005 for the ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings before finally retiring.
We know what happens from there for the Rangers, as their 7th round pick from 2000 draft would go on to become the greatest goaltender in franchise history and, in a way, that wouldn’t have been possible had fate not dealt Blackburn a really raw deal.
After retiring from pro hockey, Blackburn also spent some time working with the team in a development role, and here’s an interview of his from a decade ago.
It didn’t end there for Danny though, as 5 years after retiring, he donned a Rangers sweater again suiting up for the 2011 Winter Classic Alumni Game sporting the double blocker look for the Blueshirts.