So far, though, he hasn’t taken that next step. And he accepts that fact — and takes responsibility for the reasons behind it.
“I definitely haven’t gotten off to a start that I personally would’ve liked,” Blackwell said. “I have a lot more to give, and I take the onus for that. There’s a lot of ‘look in the mirror’ type of things that I can do better. I have to own up to some of the mistakes I made. But, at the same time, I have confidence in myself. I wouldn’t be here today if that wasn’t the case.”
Blackwell re-entered the Hawks’ lineup Thursday against the Kings — positioned on the fourth-line wing next to Reese Johnson and Boris Katchouk — for the first time in 11 days. He had been healthy-scratched by coach Luke Richardson for three consecutive games.
That benching came after a stretch of game-altering errors. With the Hawks leading the Sabres in the third period Oct. 29, Blackwell had two opportunities to clear the puck out of the defensive zone along the right-side wall. He failed both times, Tage Thompson scored seconds later and the Sabres rallied to win in overtime.
The next night against the Wild was even worse. Blackwell was responsible for both first-period goals the Hawks conceded.
On the first play, he twice anticipated zone exits and cheated up the ice for breakout passes that never came, then lost track of Matt Boldy as he slipped behind the Hawks’ defense and scored. On the second play, he lost inside positioning on — and failed to keep pace with — Mason Shaw, who scored on an easy rebound tap-in.
“It’s just a mental breakdown,” Blackwell said. “It’s about falling into our team structure and trusting that some other things are going to happen so I can be that safety valve. I was trying to do a little too much, and that’s how those breakdowns happen. I didn’t think I did a great job, from a ‘layer’ perspective, of being there for other guys. Those are little things that happen throughout the course of the game, but I had a big one, and it cost us.”
The Sabres and Wild produced 16 scoring chances to the Hawks’ five during Blackwell’s five-on-five ice time that weekend. For the season overall, Blackwell’s 32.8% on-ice scoring-chance ratio ranked 400th among 408 forwards leaguewide entering Thursday.
“He’s just over-trying sometimes,” Richardson said. “[He’s] back-checking and trying so hard that you’re not really aware of what’s coming behind you. . . . We showed him all that. He’s a pro, and he knows that. But it’s good to see it and talk about it.”
One month doesn’t define a player, and Blackwell has two full years of stellar defensive results with the Rangers and Kraken to prove he can succeed in this role.
He’s also a good penalty-killer, speedy forechecker and eager shot-blocker — all positive traits that Richardson said the Hawks will “welcome back.” He simply needs to flush away October’s bad memories and start anew.
“It happens to everybody,” Richardson said. “And there will be a 10-game stretch [later on] when he’s feeling like the top of the world and everything is going right for him. We just want to get him in that right mindset to go out and play free and do his job right.”
Added Blackwell: “If I clean up some of those things and continue my general work ethic and stuff I was bringing to the table beforehand, good things will come.”