Colin Blackwell was signed at the beginning of free agency to a two-year deal that was structured in a manner that made it seem that he’d be depth for Hartford or fodder for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft. It made sense as the 27-year-old forward had just 33 games of NHL experience, with 27 of those games coming during the 2019-20 season with Nashville.
But thus far, the 5’9”, 190-lb. forward has been quite the addition for the Rangers, and it may be time to increase his minutes to get a sense of what he’s fully capable of.
Blackwell has skated in eight games for the Blueshirts, as he lost four games to an upper body injury. He’s posted a line of 3-2-5, and tied the amount of goals he scored with Nashville last season, and is halfway to his 2019-20 point total. Blackwell isn’t getting a ton of ice time — 11:31 a game to be precise — but he’s certainly been effective and efficient when he hops over the boards. Per Evolving-Hockey’s goals above replacement metric, Blackwell ranks fourth with a GAR of 2.2.
Ahead of him are Filip Chytil (2.4 GAR), Pavel Buchnevich (4 GAR), and Brendan Smith (4.2 GAR). Blackwell’s GAR number is a combination of an even strength offense number of 1, and an even strength defense number of 1.2. His penalty drawn and take differential of 0.2 respectively cancels each other out. I bring this up because it is impressive for him to be so high up while other players on the team has skated in double digit games, and his success can be credited to not being a drag on the team.
For example, Artemiy Panarin’s impact hasn’t been what it was last year, and while he’s posted a 0.9 for offense, and a 0.3 in penalty differential, his defensive impact has been negative at -1 which drags down his overall effectiveness. What is important to note is that GAR is not the be-all, end-all, it’s just one metric for analysis. And no one can dispute that Panarin’s had an impact for the Rangers as their scoring leader. But just like GAR, raw points aren’t the be-all, end-all either. For the purpose of Blackwell, this is just one small component of his overall impact to the Rangers thus far.
With Blackwell on the ice, the team has generated +0.07 expected goals for per 60, and the team has surrendered -0.27 expected goals against per 60 relative to league average.
It overall is a small sample of 80 minutes of 5v5, but it’s an extension of positive play that he should with the Nashville Predators.
This performance could be why On The Forecheck’s own Bryan Bastin called the Rangers’ signing of Blackwell a steal back in October, and thus far that certainly appears to be the case.
Blackwell’s career has been short to date, but he’s been a positive more than he’s been a negative, and here’s a look at how his games have graded out. Game score is handy because it combines box score stats with underlying numbers.
68% of Colin Blackwell's career NHL games have fallen into the Fine, Good, or Great category. Whoever advocated for his signing to NYR brass should be given some solid credit. pic.twitter.com/dINCP4eNJR— Rob Luker (@RLuker12) February 21, 2021
Prior to making it to the NHL, Blackwell skated in 94 games at Harvard University where he had a simple line of 19-39-58. At the AHL level he skated in 187 games tallying 105 points, with his best year being a 45-point campaign with the Rochester Americans during the 2017-18 season. He did also put up 23 points in 26 games last season with the Milwaukee Admirals, and now that he’s finally at the NHL level he’s trying to make the most of the opportunity he’s got.
In terms of on-ice metrics this season, Blackwell is second on the Rangers with an xGF% of 67.99, second with a CF% of 59.04, and third with a GF% of 74.27. Simply stated, when Blackwell is on the ice good things happen, and he isn’t sacrificing defense either, as he’s got the lowest expected goals against per 60 on the team at 1.2.
When Filip Chytil ultimately returns to the lineup, the Rangers will have some decisions to make on how they want to deploy their lines. Quinn has mixed things up lately in an attempt to get Mika Zibanejad going, and here’s how the team’s lines looked vs. Washington:
Artemiy Panarin — Mika Zibanejad — Alexis Lafrenière
Chris Kreider — Ryan Strome — Pavel Buchnevich
Phil Di Giuseppe — Kevin Rooney — Colin Blackwell
Brendan Lemieux — Brett Howden — Julien Gauthier
This lineup didn’t include Kaapo Kakko who missed the game due to being added to the NHL’s COVID-19 list, but when he’s back he likely would go in for Julien Gauthier. When Chytil is back, Howden should be the odd man out, but the organization certainly values him more than they should. That means one of Rooney, Lemieux, or Di Giuseppe may be scratched instead.
In the meantime, though, with Kakko and Chytil out of the lineup, the Rangers should try and find a way for Blackwell to get more ice time, and maximize the value he can bring to the team while others are struggling. It’s unlikely Quinn will breakup the top line because Lafrenière scored, but here’s what would be an interesting look:
Artemiy Panarin — Ryan Strome — Pavel Buchnevich
Alexis Lafrenière — Mika Zibanejad — Colin Blackwell
Chris Kreider — Kevin Rooney — Julien Gauthier
Brendan Lemieux — Brett Howden — Phil Di Giuseppe
The reason I like this setup is that it reunites a Strome and Panarin combination that was effective last year, and pairs them with Buchnevich who is off to the best start of his career. It moves Zibanejad away from the opposition’s top defense pairing and puts him with a left-handed winger that can shoot and feed him the puck for cross-ice one-timers.
Blackwell here serves as a defensively responsible play driver who complete the line. At this point there’s nothing to lose by leaning on Blackwell a little more, and learning what he’s capable of. If he ultimately can’t handle that responsibilities long term there’s nothing wrong with that. This is because he can serve value being a complementary player too, which ultimately could be his long-term role.
As to why making the change now? Kreider hasn’t been great and having him on the third line wouldn’t cut into his ice time too much since he plays special teams. Gauthier is a player who at his peak could be similar to Kreider in nature. Rooney’s numbers —78.6 GF%, 47.07 CF%, and 55.41 xGF% — have been pretty good, and I’d like to see him with some players with offensive skill. Then you have the fourth line that is what it is. This setup more or less sets up a template for when everyone is healthy, and I’d love to see these combos at some point.
Artemiy Panarin — Filip Chytil — Pavel Buchnevich
Alexis Lafrenière — Mika Zibanejad — Kaapo Kakko
Chris Kreider — Ryan Strome — Colin Blackwell
Brendan Lemieux — Kevin Rooney — Phil Di Giuseppe/Julien Gauthier
This is more or less just a combinations thing, because Quinn has shown he’ll shuffle the amount of time his top nine gets by cutting back on the time the fourth line gets. It excludes Howden, and that’s because at this point he’s a known commodity, and one of the team’s weaker players. I don’t think Chytil’s going to get top line duty immediately upon return, and even if you swap him and Strome here, I’m still fine with the setup in theory.
Blackwell’s been really solid for the Rangers, and is on his way to exceeding any expectations that accompanied his signing. In the long run, he certainly has stiff competition against him when it comes to carving out playing time, but while there’s an opportunity for him to play, the Rangers should try and get the most they can out of him. It is unlikely he’s going to be a long-term top-six forward for the team, and that’s fine. But there’s no reason against seeing what his ceiling is as a player if the team views him as a capable third-line forward for the next few years.
As players get healthier there will be decisions to be made, but Blackwell deserves all the opportunity in the world to hold his spot even when other return to the lineup. And experimenting now will afford the team a chance to have a sense of how they can most efficiently setup their lines once everyone is back.