When the Blackhawks announced the signing of Masterton and Jennings Trophy winner Robin Lehner, the whole complexion of goaltending in the Blackhawks’ organization changed drastically.
It was clear to most that Stan Bowman was envisioning a future goaltending battery of Lehner and Collin Delia. Many fans and media members, though, continue to hang on to the delusion that Corey Crawford is ageless and unaffected by at least two major concussions. As a result (and to my surprise), there have been mentions of potentially extending Crawford when his contract is up July 1, 2020.
This would prove to be a huge mistake.
I should not have to preface this, but I have been a huge Crawford apologist for years. Ever since he arrived on the scene in 2010–11, I was a vocal leader of the Crawford support group and fought the good fight for No. 50. I felt like he never truly got the recognition he deserved, even after winning two Stanley Cup championships. People would poke holes in his accomplishments because Scott Darling, Ray Emery and Antti Raanta played well behind him. While Raanta has been a good NHL starter, none of those backups were able to go on and accomplish what Crawford has done with the Blackhawks.
This was because Crawford was quite simply a better goalie.
I love the guy, but this is the time to start planning for life without him as the Blackhawks’ primary starting goalie.
No smart general manager commits to a 35-year-old athlete with a history of serious head injuries, especially when they just signed a younger (and better) player. This would just be nostalgia clouding basic common sense. I have seen people attempt to bring up that Tim Thomas had success at a later age. Thomas was an anomaly. You are better off betting that lightning will strike the same tree twice.
Thomas did not even make the Bruins full time until he was 31 years of age. His last truly successful year was in 2011–12 when he was 38 years old. He burned hot and bright for seven seasons, but faded away quickly. Crawford, on the other hand, took over the Blackhawks crease at 25 years of age, which means he has six more seasons of wear and tear on top of his concussion problems.
No goalie in the modern NHL has been re-signed at the age of 35 and had long term success. It just does not happen. While Crawford had a decent season last year, until he was injured again, his statistics were considerably lower than the “top 10” goalie that everyone remembers. He was playing behind a very porous defense, but his even strength save percentage (.913) was the lowest of his career and his overall save percentage (.908) was below league average. It could be argued that he will start a steep decline in ability soon, if he has not begun already.
There is this strange “walking on eggshells” mentality surrounding Crawford that also complicates the situation. We have heard things like “I have not talked to Corey about the goaltending situation,” which is highly unusual. Each of the past two summers, it has been widely reported that no one from the organization, short of Jimmy Waite, has had any contact with Crawford. He just simply disappears. He was a guest at the 2018 fan convention, but that was largely a public relations stunt to keep fans from mass panic since he had not been seen nor heard from for the equivalent of a full-term pregnancy. I cannot put my finger on the issue, specifically, but this is not normal behavior between an organization and one of their alleged leaders.
Seriously, though, who is running this Mickey Mouse operation? Corey Crawford or Stan Bowman?
Shifting gears, Bowman just signed a very successful, considerably younger goalie to a $5 million contract in July and (despite the nonsense the public has been spoon fed) it was not to be Corey Crawford’s backup. Lehner is in Chicago to audition for the starting spot next fall and he deserves every chance to seize the opportunity. Like Crawford, he did not blossom until his mid-20s, which means he is in the prime of his career rather than riding off into the sunset. Lehner proved that he could be an NHL starter in Buffalo, and followed it up by proving he could be a top-tier level netminder with the Islanders last season. He has that Scott Darling “feel good” comeback story and comes with a high pedigree. He is primed and ready for the Chicago spotlight. This is not some unproven fringe AHL kid. This guy has 275 NHL games and 101 wins to his credit. Why is everyone completely dismissing this? The only two possibilities are ignorance or denial.
Also lost in this whole situation is my guy, Collin Delia. There is no question that he is ready to be, at minimum, an NHL backup. He is young, affordable and now long overdue. Is he ready to be a full-time starter? Probably not. He has paid his AHL penance and deserves an honest shot at being and NHL player for a full season, though. If not, then send him somewhere that he can get an honest shot, instead of this shroud of uncertainty. Wasting this kid’s potential because the organization cannot make up their mind is borderline criminal.
In short, unless Robin Lehner spirals into some kind of Anton Forsberg–type downfall, Stan Bowman needs to find a way to extend Lehner before he hits free agency and start preparing everyone for a Lehner-Delia duo to start the 2020–21 season. Corey Crawford has been a warrior and will go down as a Blackhawks legend, but his expiration date has been approaching for quite some time.