It will devastate the Hawks if Crawford misses the rest of the season, but with the team not good enough to make a Cup push anyway, chasing Band-Aid roster fixes would be foolish.
Nothing about 2017-18 has felt like a typical Chicago Blackhawks season in the Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville era, from the subpar defensive play to making Brent Seabrook a healthy scratch to relying on more rookies than ever to trading away usual first-line right winger Richard Panik at mid-season. The topsy-turvy story, predicated on years of squeezing out veteran talent because of salary-cap crunches, has the Blackhawks sitting somewhere we haven’t seen them in years: last place in the Central Division.
Just when it seemed the year couldn’t get stranger for this team, reliable Hawks beat writer Mark Lazerus dropped a hammer Tuesday night: goaltender Corey Crawford, out since late December, could miss the rest of the season with “vertigo-like symptoms.” In a story published this morning, Lazerus said three different sources corroborated that information.
Yikes. Crawford has been far and away the Blackhawks’ MVP this season. His .929 save percentage is the highest of his career. That stat is particularly relevant considering the Hawks allow 32.6 shots per game this season, ninth-most in the NHL and easily the highest average they’ve surrendered as a team since Quenneville took over as coach in 2008-09. Per corsica.hockey, among goaltenders with 1,000 or more minutes played 5-on-5, Crawford leads the NHL in high-danger SP this season. He’s bailed out his team even when it allows 10-bell chances.
Losing Crawford for the year would thus be more devastating for Chicago this season than at any other point in the past decade. With his team three points out of a wildcard playoff spot right now, what should GM Bowman do if Crawford really can’t return in 2017-18?
The current options to take over or share starting duty are Jeff Glass and Anton Forsberg. Glass, 32, is best known as Canada’s gold-winning goalie on the 2005 world junior squad, which is widely considered the best of all-time. He’s been quite a fun story playing the first NHL games of his career, posting an adequate .910 SP. But he’s been highly inconsistent, with an SP of .920 or better in three starts and below .900 in three. He’s allowed four or more goals in half his starts. He’s a guy everyone roots for but will be completely unpredictable if relied upon as the starter going forward.
Forsberg, 25, was a decently regarded prospect for several years in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ system before coming to the Hawks with Brandon Saad in the Artemi Panarin deal over the summer. Forsberg’s numbers are almost identical to Glass’, but Forsberg has more NHL experience overall, and he’s heating up of late, with a .921 SP over his past five appearances. Given his pedigree, he’s the better bet to emerge as Chicago’s go-to option for the rest of the season and for the playoffs.
But is either goalie safe to trust for a team that always has high expectations? It’s only natural to ponder what stopgap options might be out there. If Bowman wanted experience, he could look at the New York Islanders’ Jaroslav Halak, whose contract expires this summer. For an expiring deal with a bit of upside: maybe a change of scenery would benefit the Arizona Coyotes’ Antti Raanta. And GM John Chayka could throw in Niklas Hjalmarsson, too, wink wink. For talented goalies still under team control as pending RFAs and available at a discount during off years, Bowman could ask about the Buffalo Sabres’ Robin Lehner or the Detroit Red Wings’ Petr Mrazek.
But the catch-22 is that, because Bowman would only want to add a goalie for cheap, any goalie he gets would be cheap because he’s having a bad year, and if he’s struggling that much, would he even be an upgrade over Glass and Forsberg? It’s debatable. Among the group listed above, only Lehner would feel like a surefire improvement, yet he’s known for being emotionally volatile and has never been asked to start high-pressure games in the NHL, having toiled for several seasons on a rebuilding Buffalo squad.
It thus might not be worth the risk for Bowman to start pursuing goalie upgrades. A condition as murky as Crawford’s could suddenly improve and render him healthy before the playoffs, so Bowman wouldn’t want to pay too much for additional help, and the cheaper options aren’t guaranteed to actually fix anything in goal. More importantly, it may finally be time to acknowledge the Blackhawks as a team in transition. They don’t look like high-end Stanley Cup contenders. They’ve been eliminated in Round 1 of the playoffs two straight years, and star players Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will join Crawford, Seabrook and Duncan Keith in the 30-or-older club before 2018 ends. The Blackhawks don’t have a ton of high-end talent in their farm system since Alex DeBrincat is already with the big club, so it’s not like they can flip future assets for major short-term roster upgrades right now. Even if they did, or if Bowman decided to dangle draft picks, that would be a questionable idea because this team may not be good enough to go far this year even after a few upgrades.
The best course of action is likely standing pat, hoping Glass and Forsberg keep the team afloat, and giving the youngsters like DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman all the ice time they can handle in hopes of accelerating their development. Missing the playoffs wouldn’t be the worst thing for this team, either, if it gave the Hawks a shot at a high draft pick, the type of prospect good enough to jump right to the NHL. As victims of their own success, they haven’t enjoyed a top-10 selection since nabbing Kane first overall in 2007.