After an inconsistent senior season that finished with a dramatic upswing in the NCAA Tournament, former Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn is preparing himself for the jump to the NHL.

Paul Wong
Former Michigan goaltender Josh Blackburn has been working on his foot-speed and agility with Michigan goalie coach Stan Matwijiw.

Blackburn, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes, is currently in Phoenix working with the Coyotes’ staff at a rookie training camp. Michigan goalie coach Stan Matwijiw said that the purpose of the camp is for the Coyotes to give the players an introduction to the training the NHL requires and to learn more about the players personally.

“They’re running him through some aerobics, weight training, and they’re on the ice every day,” Matwijiw said. “He’s working hard, losing a lot of weight.”

Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said that Blackburn is currently in contract negotiations with the Coyotes and that he will most likely sign with them. Matwijiw believes that “it’s pretty much carved in” that his student will play for the Springfield Falcons of Massachusetts, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate, next season. Blackburn and the Coyotes’ could not be reached for comment.

“Do I think Josh is ready to jump in this year? No,” Matwijiw said. “Do I think he has the potential to make it to the NHL? Absolutely, without a doubt.

“I’ve known him for three years now, and we’ve grown to have a relationship, and I’ve never seen him as determined as he is now about the challenge that’s ahead of him.”

Former Michigan netminders Steve Shields (1991-94) and Marty Turco (1995-98) were able to meet the challenge – but not without enduring some struggles. Shields spent two years in the minor leagues and two years as a backup with the Buffalo Sabres organization before establishing himself with the San Jose Sharks. Turco spent two full years in the minors before backing up Ed Belfour with the Dallas Stars for the past two seasons. Turco, who won national championships at Michigan in 1996 and 1998, has been named the starter in goal for Dallas next season.

“Not a lot of rookie goalies step right in,” Powers said. “Shields and Turco have found a way to create a name for themselves, and Blackie’s story, he has to write it, and where it goes, that’s up to Josh. Potential-wise, there’s not a big difference in those kids.”

“I think the kid’s a big-time fighter, competitor, and that is something that attracted us to him. I think he has that intangible of desire.”

Blackburn struggled throughout much of his senior season, and the turning point could have been his lackluster performance against Michigan State in a 3-1 loss at Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 16. The four-year starter allowed two soft goals to the Spartans’ Joe Goodenow – one of which was intended to be a dump into the Michigan zone. But Blackburn bounced back, giving up 1.75 goals per game in the Wolverines’ final four games – weekend sweeps of Ohio State and Western Michigan – to lead Michigan to the CCHA regular season title.

“He was not sharp in (the Michigan State game), but if you look at his season, you’ll probably find two or three individual games that every goalie would want back,” Powers said. “The good thing about Blackie was that he bounced back solid.”

Blackburn was always at his best in the postseason, and last season was no different. With his collegiate career coming to a close, he was spectacular in the net at the NCAA West Regional. He stymied two of the nation’s top teams in St. Cloud and Denver and kept the Wolverines in the game against Minnesota in the national semifinal.

“I think the bottom line is if you look at his collegiate career, he’s proven he’s a money goalie,” Matwijiw said. “You look at the NCAA Tournaments, and he was our best player over the course of any of those tournaments. That’s something that NHL teams are looking for.”

Powers was quick to point out that Blackburn’s game still needs some fine tuning before he’ll be ready to lead the Coyotes into battle.

“He improved quite a bit playing the puck as his four-year career progressed here,” Powers said. “He still needs to get stronger and smarter with the puck. When he came here, he didn’t have any confidence playing the puck.

“It seems like when Blackie is really composed in the net, he makes things look easy. He won’t get away with (athleticism) at the next level. There are too many good shooters. He’s not leaving here a finished product.”

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