As the Chicago Blackhawks head home from the Edmonton bubble, there are many questions regarding the direction of this team and organization. Before they answer most of the other on-ice questions, General Manager Stan Bowman needs to come up with a plan as to who will be playing in the Blackhawks’ net most nights.
Currently, the incumbent, Corey Crawford, becomes an unrestricted free agent when the offseason begins. The soon-to-be 36-year-old goalie has been a warrior for the organization and widely underappreciated in Chicago for almost a decade. That said, he has a proven history of serious head injuries and is one swift “doink” on the noggen from another lengthy stint in a dark room. He just wrapped up a six-year, $36 million contract that began the same season he won his second Stanley Cup in three seasons with Chicago.
Despite his COVID-19 diagnosis, lack of training camp preparation and five months off the ice, he made a solid argument for a one or two-year extension to backstop this team…if he can stay healthy, and if his decline does not start rolling downhill at a much quicker rate.
In walking away from Robin Lehner at the trade deadline for a draft pick and a future Rockford IceHogs legend, Bowman left himself few options to keep the puck out of the back of the Chicago net. If it were not for arguably the best goaltending tandem in the NHL at the time, the Blackhawks probably would have been much closer to the bottom of the league and likely would not have been eligible for the play-in round. Losing both goalies would set the team back even further than the flat cap will.
I have to be the bearer of bad news once again, though. Crawford is not coming back for a huge cut in pay, not to play behind a team that will likely take a step back in their defensive coverage before they take a step forward. He is not taking the “hometown discount” fairy tale people love to fantasize about.
First of all, Chicago is not his hometown, he has just played here his entire career, and, second, Chicago will not be his only offer. Most importantly, despite all the naive toxic optimism that has been floating around, this team will not be in the Stanley Cup conversation in the next two or three years.
Bowman needs Crawford more than Crawford needs Bowman and the Blackhawks. This is why some two-year bargain deal is not likely. Crawford has earned more than a fraction of the fair market value he made over his previous contract. Two years at $4-4.5 million is a fair expectation. Any less than that is utterly insulting and he would be well within his rights to walk away offended.
What are Bowman’s other options?
He could stick with two of the goalies currently under contract, but Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen have a combined 18 NHL games (all by Delia), and the last thing you want behind a young, mistake-prone defense is two goalies that are just trying to find their own NHL legs. Using either as a backup is another story. You can shelter them and play them in situations that help build their confidence.
Another option is to qualify Malcolm Subban and see if the former first-round pick of the Boston Bruins is ready to be a quality NHL starting goaltender, which is a highly unlikely result.
The most likely option, if Crawford is not the answer, would be exploring the free agent market. When considering this, one blatant misconception about the free agent market needs to be debunked. Just because there are a lot of names on the free agent list does not mean there are “good” names. The list of quality free agent goalies is short.
Short, as in five goalies including Crawford.
After you get past the initial four or five goalies, you are already into “nice backup but not a quality NHL starting goalie” territory.
STOP TELLING PEOPLE THE 2020 FREE AGENT GOALIE CLASS IS DEEP!
You are just feeding casual fans incorrect information they will just regurgitate to other fans that will not even bother to look at the actual list.
When/if the Stanley Cup is raised, and the draft has commenced, the list of available free agent goalies is as follows:
After Braden Holtby, Crawford, Robin Lehner, Matt Murray and Jacob Markstrom, this list is a bunch of spare parts that will give you Cam Ward-level production. Most are reaching their mid-30s, and have never been full-time NHL starting goalies or have been passed around and discarded like a bottle of Boones Farm at a high school dance.
You can quickly disqualify Crawford, Lehner and Markstrom. Lehner has reportedly agreed in principle to a five-year, $25 million deal to remain in Las Vegas and Markstrom will be far too rich for the Blackhawks’ flea market budget. This leaves Holtby and Murray, which, as I stated earlier, has really narrowed the pool of good available goalies.
Honestly, Pittsburgh is running Murray out of town because he is wildly unreliable and trends indicate that Holtby is well into his decline as a starting goalie. Neither is going to take less than $4 million to play in Chicago, either.
There are definitely other goalies on the list, but none I would be marching out as the uncontested starting goalie of the mighty Chicago Blackhawks on Dec. 1. Craig Anderson, Jimmy Howard, Thomas Greiss, Cam Talbot, Anton Khudobin and Mike Smith are all serviceable backup goalies at this point in their careers. The last thing this young Blackhawks defense needs behind them is a carousel of aging high-risk, low-reward hail marys.