TORONTO– Jesse Blacker’s sophomore season with the Toronto Marlies didn’t start the way he wanted, but he’s now making up for lost time and his coach has taken notice in his recent turn-around.
“Jesse’s been good since the lockout ended,” said Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins. “He’s taken a couple steps forward. He’s been physical, pushing the puck. It’s nice because we thought he had a real slow start.”
“As a player it’s good to feel when you’re playing well and since the lockout I feel like my game’s accelerated,” added Blacker.
After missing a total of 28 games last season, including the entire Calder Cup Final, with various injuries, the Toronto native trained in the summer with Leafs strength and conditioning coach Anthony Belza, worked on his stride with skating coach Barbara Underhill and took more consideration with what foods were going into his body.
The 6-foot-0, 200-pound defenceman entered this season optimistic, ready to step up his role, and maybe catch the attention of Leafs management. Unfortunately though, he found himself pushed down the Marlies’ depth chart with an over abundance of blue liners. Add in an early-season mishap that led to him wearing a full cage to protect his jaw and teeth, Blacker’s development was seeming to plateau as he was in and out of the lineup, again.
“It seemed every time he got up and was playing well he got hurt,” said Eakins.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” said Blacker about dealing with injuries. “But that’s just how the game works. Sometimes injuries happen and some guys play 600 games without an injury.”
The 2009 second-round pick has recently skated in 28 consecutive games, staying injury free, and has turned himself into a guy Eakins can rely on with the likes of Mike Kostka, Mark Fraser and Korbinian Holzer summoned to the Leafs. In the last month Blacker has seen an increase in ice time and he’s second in average time-on-ice behind only Jake Gardiner who, along with Blacker, has made up Eakins’ top blue-line unit for a number of recent games.
Gardiner, too, is finding Blacker to be a trustworthy partner whose game is aiding the product of Minnesota in his battle to return to the Leafs lineup.
“It’s nice having a guy that can skate really well with you on the blue line,” said Gardiner. “If I get caught I know he’s always there, and he moves the puck well.
“He’s steady, which gives me more leeway,” he added.
When Blacker was first drafted, Toronto’s organization had very little in terms of future defencemen. But in the four years since he was selected 58th overall, he’s watched the addition of Gardiner through trade and the drafting of notables Stuart Percy, Morgan Rielly and Matt Finn.
“You can’t expect (the organization) not to draft another defenceman, that’s outrageous,” said Blacker. “You try not to focus on it. I focus on my game and hope I can beat somebody out of a job or be ready when they call my name.”
Originally drafted for being able to produce offensively at the junior level, Blacker has been doing his best to become a “two-way defencemen” in the AHL. While the additions of so many quality blue-line prospects could warrant uncertainty for his future at the NHL level, Blacker has kept his faith that Toronto is the place for him.
“You have to be patient. I believe in (management) that they have a plan for me. Obviously you want to play in the NHL right away, but you need to have some trust and hope it’s the best thing for you. I do what I can do and wait for my chance.”