The Chicago Blackhawks fanbase and overall media universe were caught off guard yesterday by the team’s signing of free agent goalie Robin Lehner. Here at The Rink, we may not have been the only observers to theorize that a surprise move in net might be in the offing, but we were definitely in the minority.
If you listen from about the 1 hour/14 minute mark of RinkCast 54 (recorded last week), you’ll hear the likely rationale for why the Hawks would acquire an expereinced alternative to Corey Crawford and Collin Delia this summer.
After yesterday’s news, the writing on the wall could not be more clear: Corey Crawford’s tenure between the pipes in Chicago is likely winding down. He is now in the final year of a big money contract, 35 years old, and has had recent, serious concussion issues that have basically wiped out over a season of hockey.
GM Stan Bowman has done a lot of work on his defense the last couple of years, with 5 defensemen drafted in the first two rounds of the last 3 drafts and two trades this summer for experienced NHL blueliners. All these moves, at least on paper, suggest improvement to the Blackhawks’ NHL fortunes near-term and long-term.
Bowman has also begun re-building the bottom six forwards—seemingly trying to recapture the formula of 2015 with Andrew Shaw and Ryan Carpenter, who may remind some of 2015 Cup winner Andrew Desjardins. And yes, Marcus Kruger could be back as the teams’s 12th or 13th forward. These aren’t “offensive” moves.They are all about building lower lines and penalty killing forwards that help keep the puck out of the Hawks’ net.
It’s also extremely likely that Artem Anisimov will get his needed change of scenery in the next few days, and the Hawks may now have the luxury to move another depth defenseman. And thus, the Hawks’ may yet add another forward.
Bowman is busy, and dealing, and slowly the face of a rebuilt team is emerging—the way championships are built, from the net out.
Let’s get clear now on what signing Lehner really means.
He is a 27 year old Vezina Trophy Finalist and Jennings Trophy winner in 2019. His recent body of work is at least an echelon above both of the aforementioned former Hawk netminders. He is big, talented and competitive. This is why his signing raised so many eyebrows and questions. Lehner is likely not a 1B goalie—he’s a #1. So then what’s going to happen to Crawford?
Lehner is signed for one year.
What this means is next July 1st (or more likely before) the team and Lehner will make a decision whether he will be extended and remain in Chicago as the #1. This strategy gives Lehner the freedom to decide where he wants to be, and gives the Hawks some flexibility in terms of clarifying their goalie situation. On the surface, it can be described like the Ward signing a year ago.The difference is Lehner is 27, not 34, and he is a better goalie at this point than Ward was last year.
A lot could happen: Collin Delia could really continue to refine his game and emerge as a #1. It’s possible. LIkely? Ehhh, those are longer odds.
Crawford could rise up, stay healthy, and play 65 stellar games—and make the case for a short contract extension. But that new contract could also be elsewhere in the NHL. But all that rides on Crawford staying completely healthy this season, which again are longer odds.
Lehner could be in Chicago long term. It’s probably up to him.
Finally, it’s very likely that the team and Lehner’s agent discussed the very real possibility of a longer term extension. The Hawks, I was told then, investigated trading for Lehner 2-3 years ago. They like his talent. At the same time, Lehner is also a recent Masterton Trophy winner, a result of his recent “comeback” from alcoholism and related emotional issues. Although Columbus and his incumbent Islanders offered Lehner deals in the last 24-48 hours, even the Islanders were allegedly only willing to go to 2 years in term. Why? Because likely any team is going to need to see some more sobriety and stability from Lehner before committing significant dollars and term. And likely no one understands that better than Lehner himself.
What all this activity over the last few weeks means is that the old paradigm of the Chicago Blackhawks is rapidly changing. Sure, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, are still around. But aside from that, everything else with this team has evolved, and at some point in the not too terribly distant future, one or two more chunks of the remaining Cup core will fall away as Bowman continues to make major moves.
All we have for now. Comment below.