For the small and exclusive group of general managers of major professional sports teams, there’s always admiration – and sometimes, a bit of envy – amongst one’s peers when a GM unearths “a find.”
More descriptively, an undervalued asset, one generally acquired at low cost and also costing a relatively small amount in salary as compared to what the player produces.
New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton added a couple such players to his résumé this season, the most significant being forward Colin Blackwell . Gorton inked the Harvard product to a two-year, $1.45 million contract Oct. 9 after the now-28-year-old had played 33 games over the previous two seasons with the Nashville Predators, recording 10 points.
What the Rangers have gotten from the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder, who was picked in the seventh round of the 2011 Draft by the San Jose Sharks, has been stunning. Blackwell has 12 goals and eight assists in 34 games after a three-assist performance in Thursday’s 4-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils, which moved the Blueshirts to 9-3-2 in their last 14 contests. He scored six goals in a seven-game stretch March 28-April 9.
Yet, his shocking scoring surge has been only one reason why coach David Quinn has found it nearly impossible to remove him from the lineup in favor of one of the team’s highly-regarded young forwards. Blackwell’s grit, fire and willingness to go to the dirty areas in front of the net and along the boards have been sorely needed for a Blueshirts roster that’s long on high-end skill and short on edge and physicality.
Blackwell’s jack-of-all-trades nature has allowed Quinn to play him up and down the lineup. Despite his diminutive size, he’ll stand up for teammates, going after T.J. Oshie after the Washington Capitals winger hit teammate Kevin Rooney up high in a 5-4 loss on March 28 — a game in which Blackwell also scored two goals on his 28th birthday. He’s spent time at right wing on the line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, as he did Thursday. So yes, there’s a little bit of Jesper Fast in him.
Blackwell’s a plus-8 this season after posting a plus-7 rating in 2019-20. And what he lacks in speed, size and NHL stature, he makes up for in self-confidence.
“I feel like I just haven’t been given an opportunity and haven’t been given a chance or anything along those lines,” Blackwell said of his previous two organizations. “For me, from Day One since I got here, I truly felt that my teammates, the coaching staff and management believed in me, and that’s why I thought it would be a great fit. When the opportunity comes you have to make the most of it. I try to do that every single day.”
“There’s definitely a couple of times I’ve bounced around. I’ve learned from it. But I would have given up a heck of a long time ago if I didn’t believe in myself.” (From ‘Rangers’ Colin Blackwell Turning Into Big-Time Offensive Force’, New York Post, 4/10/21)
Blackwell is Quinn’s kind of player — a heartbeat guy who plays a straight-ahead, simple game. One who brings 100 percent commitment every night and performs like every shift might be his last. Playing for a club that has youthful first-round draft picks Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov and Julien Gauthier also vying for minutes on the right side, Blackwell knows that very well could be the case if he lets up at all — which should provide a valuable lesson for his more high-profile teammates.
“He comes to the rink for practice and even if he misses a pass or shot, you know, some of us might laugh or get on each other, but he’s really seriously trying to dial it in because that’s just the attitude he’s needed to get to this level,” Strome said. “I think it’s really paying off for him immensely.
“He is a great role model in that sense with his work ethic and the results he’s had for everybody.” (From ‘Colin Blackwell Emerging as Rangers’ Hidden Gem’, New York Post, 3/1/21)
Does Blackwell have any faults? Well, one big one, actually – the timing for his emergence isn’t very good, at least from the Rangers’ perspective.
The problem is that Gorton didn’t give Blackwell a two-year deal because he foresaw this kind of breakout for his fellow Massachusetts native. He signed Blackwell — along with former Devil Rooney, who’s also performed well in a similar role for the Blueshirts after inking a two-year contract — through 2021-22 in large part because an expansion draft looms.
The Rangers added Blackwell and Rooney to provide depth this season, but mostly to protect the Rangers roster this summer. Every team besides the Vegas Golden Knights, the most recent expansion club, must expose two forwards under contract who played at least 40 games in 2020-21 or 70 over the previous two seasons as the Seattle Kraken populate their roster as the NHL’s 32nd team July 21. As planned, Blackwell and Rooney have reached the threshold.
While the Rangers could make a major trade in the offseason, an extensively rumored possibility, they’ll still need to expose two forwards that meet the expansion draft requirements. Should the forward corps remain the same going into the draft, the choices of who to protect have been made more difficult by Blackwell’s emergence — even if there’s little that can be done about it.
Like most teams, the Blueshirts are expected to choose the 7-3-1 protection option over the 8 skaters and one goalie configuration. With seven forward slots, they will have to protect Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, all of whom have no-move clauses in their contracts. The other four are expected to be Strome, Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil and either Julien Gauthier or Brett Howden.
Buchnevich, Chytil, Gauthier and Howden will be restricted free agents, so unless the Rangers plan on exposing Strome — who’s also signed through 2021-22 — both Blackwell and Rooney will have to be exposed.
Essentially, the Blackwell signing has almost worked TOO well for the Rangers’ liking. He’s used this season to establish himself as a valuable asset — and there’s probably little chance Kraken management hasn’t taken notice as it prepares to pick one player from each team.
Barring some kind of deal in which Gorton gives Seattle something in exchange for not selecting Blackwell, he’ll have to watch as Ron Francis, the newest member of the NHL’s GM club, likely selects either Gauthier/Howden or Blackwell. The Rangers will expose Anthony Bitetto and Tony DeAngelo on defense, and the Kraken are likely to steer clear of DeAngelo’s $4.8 million cap hit, with him expected to be bought out shortly after the expansion draft. Keith Kinkaid, the Rangers’ expected goaltender exposure, shouldn’t draw any interest from Francis.
Gorton doesn’t want to lose any of those three forwards, and Francis may opt for the young potential of Gauthier or Howden, both first-round picks. Yet, Seattle also might consider the leadership, hard game, low price tag and now-apparent offensive ability of Blackwell to complement the young talent he’s sure to be able to add from the other 30 teams participating in the expansion draft.
Perhaps Rooney, who’s also played well while recording six goals and five assists, has an outside shot to be chosen by the Kraken. One of the three aforementioned forwards remains the most likely to be taken, however.
Gauthier and Howden have shown flashes but have yet to prove they can create a consistent impact in the NHL. Might Francis scoop up Blackwell, the Rangers’ sudden star, instead — especially if he continues to produce at this level offensively in his team’s final 13 games? It’s tough to consider that the Blueshirts, loaded with young skill guys, might miss the heart-and-soul presence of Blackwell much more than that of Gauthier or Howden, who probably don’t have a future role above the bottom six in New York.
Unfortunately, that’s out of Gorton’s control. He’s going to lose a player, and it’s going to hurt. That was the case before Blackwell’s emergence. Now there’s another guy, his top offseason find, that could be in danger of leaving.
The Rangers GM’s successful signing might soon be benefiting one of his peers. That would make it Gorton’s turn to feel envy instead of soaking in the admiration.