Mackenzie Blackwood is bent on showing the difference between being hit by shots and making saves.
The Barrie Colts goalie has ascended to the top of NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings since he is exceptionally limber for a young goalie who is also 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. Blackwood, though, knows that the higher the level of competition, the more important it becomes to not to leave opponents a promising second shot via a fat rebound.
"My strengths are probably my size and speed," says Blackwood, who has a 2.89 average and .912 save percentage across 31 games with Barrie, one of the Ontario Hockey League's more offensively oriented clubs. "My areas of improvement, what I need to work on, are probably playing the puck and reacting to shots as they're coming — not just blocking them. Always reading the play, watching where other players are on the ice.
"You can always work on everything in your game, but those are probably the biggest ones," the 18-year-old adds.
Blackwood is in line to be the second tall goalie from Thunder Bay, Ont., in the past four years to go relatively early in the NHL draft. Matt Murray, who played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and is now in the AHL, went in the third round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2012.
Blackwood gained traction as the No. 1 goalie for coach Dale Hawerchuk's Colts last season. He was slowed by an ankle injury this fall but has come back to be a major cog for Barrie, which has weathered the graduation of Aaron Ekblad to the NHL and stayed ner the top of the Central Division.
"I give all the credit to our coaches," says Blackwood, who is pushed for playing time in Barrie by 19-year-old Daniel Gibl, the last European goalie to enter the OHL before the Canadian Hockey League import draft was restricted to skaters. "They've just helped us stayed focused on what we need to do, As a group of guys, we're doing everything right now to come together as a team."
Six-foot-three, 200-pound Ilya Samsonov of Magnitogorsk, who's considered the best Russian goalie prospect since Andrei Vasilevski, is the hands-down favourite to be the first 'tender taken in June.
On the whole, though, Blackwood is unique as a Canadian goalie from the OHL who's at the top of the rankings. The first goalies selected in the past two drafts, Mason McDonald (No. 34 to Calgary last summer) and Zach Fucale (No. 36 to Montreal in 2013), both hail from the Quebec League. An OHL goalie hasn't been the first at his position selected in the NHL draft since another Colt, Brian Finley, went No. 6 overall to the Nashville Predators in 1999.
"There's a long way to go," Blackwood says of his No. 1 North American ranking. "I'm excited about it but there is still a lot of work to be done. Nothing's happened yet, it just means you're on the right track."
1. What was the travel like when you played AAA minor hockey in Thunder Bay?
"Our regular-season games were in Winnipeg so it was a seven-hour bus ride there. We'd do about four games in three days or something ridiculous like that. Definitely it prepares you for the on-the-road lifestyle at an early age. In Barrie, we're pretty central so it's shorter road trips in the OHL, for me."
2. How does someone born in 1996 end up taking the number of Ken Dryden, who was long retired from the NHL by that point?
"My dad wore number 29 when he played and he introduced me to Ken Dryden. So I just grew up enjoying the number."
3. Who are some of the goalies you look up to?
"I look up to quite a few goalies. But I would probably say my top two are Pekka Rinne and Mike Smith. I have to throw in Carey Price as well. Those are the goalies I look up to. I like to model my game a little bit after each of them. They're all top-end goalies and you can try to take bits and pieces from each of them."
4. If you weren't a hockey player, what sport would you be in?
"I enjoy golf and fishing. I'd probably do a mixture of that."
5. Where is your favourite road rink in the OHL?
"Probably London [Budweiser Gardens]. The lighting, the crowd, the fans, it wakes you up. It's great to play on that big a stage."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.