TORONTO– Jesse Blacker showed this past season he had the ability to jump from junior into professional hockey, but his development hit a stumbling block at various times because of health.
The 21-year-old defenceman suited up in 29 of the first 31 games of the season before a neck issue put him down briefly in December. Blacker missed some more time in February due to his mid-body being affected and eventually was shut down for good during the post season with a shoulder injury.
In all, he missed 28 games in his rookie season. 10 of those were in the playoffs, including the entire Calder Cup final.
“There was an adjustment period to start and injuries, unfortunately, were a bit of a setback,” said Blacker about his first season with the Toronto Marlies. “Oblique, shoulder and neck, there were some nagging things there but (injuries) are part of hockey. Just glad it’s out of the way. I’m 100 percent healthy and strong now, working out and back at it.”
When he was in the line-up, the 2009, second-round selection brought stability to the Marlies’ second D-unit and showed he was progressing at a smooth pace after a successful junior year guiding the Owen Sound Attack to a Memorial Cup appearance. After proving with the Attack he had an offensive side to his game, he used his first pro season to work towards becoming a better two-way blue liner.
“I think that’s an ongoing thing,” said Blacker about becoming an all-around defenceman. “Maturing my game is the main thing I want to work on (now) and experience is the best thing to do that.”
“Pending there is a camp my main goal is obviously to make the (Leafs), but if that doesn’t happen then I’ll come down with the Marlies and gain more experience.”
Since selecting Blacker in the second round of the 2009 NHL draft, the Leafs’ have started to stock pile youth on the blue line, which is something Blacker may not be used to. Jake Gardiner was acquired in 2011 via trade and bypassed the AHL right to the NHL while general manager Brian Burke has selected Petter Granberg, Stuart Percy, Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn all since 2010.
“I’m still going to go out there and do what I have to do to try and make the (Leafs),” said Blacker about looking at the added depth around him. “It’s a challenge, but you try not to pay attention to it. They’re going to draft players every year and it’s your job to stay ahead.”
Even if there is training camp it’s expected that Blacker will start the season with the Marlies as the Leafs will most likely only graduate Korbinian Holzer from their AHL program. But then again, Gardiner exceeded expectations at only 21 years of age at last year’s camp.
“Everyone has their different path to get to the NHL and mine will be different too. You just have to bide your time and take advantage of when you chance comes.”