Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman announced today in his post-draft/pre-free agency media availability that the team and long-time goaltender Corey Crawford could not come to an agreement on a contract and the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie will hit the upcoming free agent market.
There is no doubt Crawford was a warrior for the Blackhawks over his career. He was drafted back in 2003 and had to wait until the very end of 2010 to be given a shot at the starting job. His journey was not without huge roadblocks, either. After a couple of appearances in 2006, he did not get his first NHL win until 2008 against the Anaheim Ducks. Many people, including myself, thought he was ready to take the backup job behind Nikolai Khabibulin for the 2008–09 season, but then-General Manager Dale Tallon went out and signed Cristobal Huet following a hot 2008 playoff appearance with the Washington Capitals.
In 2010, the Blackhawks needed a backup behind Huetm but Crawford had been banged up, so the team decided to go with an unknown Finnish rookie named Antti Niemi. We all know how that went.
Once Niemi was left to hit free agency, the Blackhawks signed veteran Marty Turco to take over for 2010–11 season, but Crawford finally got his shot to play regularly in the NHL as Turco’s backup. It was not long before the Turco experiment took a turn for the worse and then-head coach Joel Quenneville turned to Crawford. All Crawford did was lead the Blackhawks to Stanley Cup championships in 2013 and 2015.
This is 2020, though. Crawford is going to be 36 years old on New Years Eve. He has endured a couple of serious bouts with post-concussion syndrome and, most recently, a bout with COVID-19 prior to the Return to Play postseason tournament. Admittedly, he has overcome those challenges, but athletes’ bodies are not designed to hold up for long careers.
Athletes do not get healthier as they get deeper into their late 30s; they get more injury prone and less productive.
Albeit probably a few months too late, but the Blackhawks made the correct decision to move on. It is hard to accept for everyone, but hanging onto players too long never bodes well for the future of your franchise. As one former NHL general manager once said, “It is better to trade a player a year too soon than a year too late.” This move was not a trade, but the sentiment still stands.
It was time to start moving on from Stanley Cup-winning core members.
Where do the Blackhawks shift to now, though?
Those who know me know that I am a huge supporter of Collin Delia. That said, I am realistic about his current abilities as a goaltender. Delia is ready for a shot at being an NHL backup. He was ready last year, but when you get the chance to sign a Vezina-caliber goalie like Robin Lehner, you jump on it. Delia has earned a shot, at minimum, to be the backup this coming season with the opportunity to compete for the starting job. He may not be ready for a starting job now, or ever, but give him the opportunity. If not, then why are you developing him through Indy and Rockford for three seasons?
Kevin Lankinen is another curious case. He had an excellent showing at the IIHF World Championships in 2019, but that is not the NHL (or even the AHL). He began last season as the starter in Rockford, but lost the job back to Delia and ended up catching the injury bug. Like Delia, he deserves an outright shot at being the backup with the opportunity to compete for the starting job in 2020–21. Keep in mind that Lankinen has never played in the NHL, and it is likely he will struggle.
If the battery of Delia and Lankinen is what the Blackhawks ultimately decide to roll with, there have been worse scenarios—not much worse, though.
Realistically, Bowman will need to find an affordable veteran goaltender on the market to weather the impending barrage of shots because the Blackhawks are going to take a step back before they start crawling forward. Many names are getting thrown around, and some, thankfully, have already been taken off the board, like Matt Murray and Brian Elliott.
Players like Henrik Lundqvist do not fit the mold and should be playing with teams that give him a chance to actually chase a Stanley Cup, not a team that will be closer to the draft lottery once again.
As I see it, there are two players that make the most sense to the Blackhawks at this stage in the team’s rebuild: Thomas Greiss and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Hear me out.
The German-born Greiss is not a flashy goaltender that will put up big numbers, but he does have solid experience with a variety of situations. He is a bigger goalie at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds and has put up solid NHL stats in his career. Teams clamoring for Cup contention will not likely be coming to him with big contracts looking for him to put them over the edge. That does not mean he is not a perfectly acceptable NHL goaltender. Bowman could probably sign him to a reasonable contract for a year or two and offer him the starting job with Delia or Lankinen backing him up.
The Blackhawks are likely to have a rough time keeping the puck out of their zone, much less their net, so a situation where they are not getting completely caved in each night is the best fans can hope for.
Now to my second scenario. This could all be irrelevant by the time this posts, but it has been reported by Justin Emerson of the Las Vegas Sun that the Vegas Golden Knights are offering a sweetener pick to take Marc-Andre Fleury off their hands while retaining half of his $7 million salary. If Bowman can offer them something to get this done, this would not be the worst idea ever. Fleury is a great locker room guy and the Blackhawks would only be tied to him for two seasons at $3.5 million per year.
Of course, this is all contingent on Bowman having anything the Golden Knights want that does not take away from what little the Blackhawks have. Vegas does owe the Blackhawks for handing them Lehner on a silver platter in return for (basically) a second-round pick and some leftover garbage.
Let me know what you think below.
Editors note: The Blackhawks re-signed Malcolm Subban, Friday, but the sentiment and opportunity still stands.