TORONTO- It may have taken three prospects camps before ultimately becoming a pro but Jesse Blacker is now playing hockey at a level that excites the Toronto Maple Leafs staff; assuring them that the 58thoverall pick in 2009 will have a future with the organization.
“(He’s) one of my favourites,” commented Jim Hughes, Director of Player Development. “He’s just such a great kid, street smart kid and he has a passion for the game and a willingness to listen and learn,” he added.
Staying patient with the development plan, General Manager Brian Burke drafted Blacker as a young, raw, offensive minded defenseman still waiting for the opportunity to be let out of the cage.
When selected by the Leafs following the 2008/09 season, the Toronto native was coming off a Memorial Cup championship with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires. Although it was his second year with Windsor, it was his first full length season and much of it was played with Toronto Marlies forward Dale Mitchell. Blacker had only 21 points in 67 games but a very respectable plus-46.
Entering his third season of major junior hockey, Blacker knew that staying with a power house like Windsor could win him another championship, but it also could slow down his development. The Spitfires D core already had Canadian Junior stand-out Ryan Ellis, so when Anaheim Ducks first round pick Cam Fowler joined Windsor after spending three years with the U.S. Under-18 program, the blue line enabled too much talent and not enough ice time to go around.
Blacker decided a trade out of Windsor was a must and, keeping in mind that playing time generates development, he was shipped to the Owen Sound attack; a team that had more than enough room for his skill.
His first year with the Attack offered him a bigger role and in 48 games, Blacker showed that he indeed could transition the puck through each zone of the ice as he put up 30 points, including 24 assists. Unfortunately the Attack finished fifth in the Midwest division and missed the play-offs; the only time in Blacker’s four year OHL career. Windsor went on to repeat as Memorial Cup champs.
With no post season to participate in at the OHL level, at the age of 19, Blacker suited up in six games with the Marlies to finish the 2009/10 season.
An American Hockey League agreement with the Canadian Hockey League states that a player coming from the CHL must have played four seasons at junior level, or be 20 years of age before he can start a season in the AHL. Because of this rule, last season Blacker’s options were to make the Leafs roster out of rookie camp or be sent to junior for one final year.
That final year with Owen Sound had many accomplishments as Blacker put up 54 points in 62 games, earning OHL Third Team All-Star.
The Attack recovered from the previous season’s failure and finished first in their conference, setting records for points (97) and wins (46).
With Blacker manning a young defensive squad, Owen Sound’s successful regular season was followed with a J. Ross Robertson Cup as OHL champions. Along the road to victory, Blacker and his Attack eliminated his former Spitfires in the Conference Final.
For Blacker, he believes winning another OHL Championship was a great way to end his junior hockey.
“Being able to do that a second time was an amazing feeling. After leaving Windsor, you don’t know if you’ll ever be on a championship team again,” he said when reflecting back. “To pull it off for the city, the guys on the team and everyone there, it was amazing,” he added when discussing what it meant to win with Owen Sound.
With this upcoming season looking like one that has Blacker playing for the Marlies, he recently went through another prospects camp and knows that each one he’s been too has had its purpose.
“Coming out here and working hard is the first step. We’re fighting for jobs and it starts here with prospect camp. Everyone’s looking to do the same thing I am, make an impression. Everything we do here helps and it’s a step in the right direction.”
Three prospects camps makes the now 20 year old a veteran of how the Leafs development system works and with his on ice skills improving, so too has his leadership off the ice.
“I try to help everyone out as much as possible,” he said when looking at the differences from his first camp until now. “Whoever takes the advice takes it and whoever doesn’t, doesn’t. But I’ll try to help the younger guys out as much as possible.”
The first thing you notice when Blacker hits the ice is how he wants to be part of every play. Whether rushing the puck or making the first pass, his north-south game emerged in Owen Sound. And with as much as he was able to accomplish at the junior level, the increase of talent at prospects camp makes him aware of what he feels he still needs to continue working on.
“I feel (it’s) waiting for the game, not so much rushing things and trying to do too much all the time is the key. I realized if you go a game without a rush or an offensive change it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the way the game is.”
As thrilled as Blacker is to make the next step in hockey, the same feelings can be said about the Leafs who have patiently waited out the junior process. Hughes in particular is excited to see Blacker graduate from junior.
“When Burkie put me in this role, he (Blacker) was one of the first guys I met. He was kind of a boy at the time and now he’s grown up so much and matured so much. He’s come so far in a short amount of time.”
With the AHL being the next step for Blacker, Hughes also solidified that everything regarding Blacker’s progression is on track for a positive future.
“He’s well on his way now.”
Follow me on Twitter @KyleTheReporter