The big news out of the Chicago Blackhawks this past week was the announcement that starting goaltender Corey Crawford has been placed on injured reserve, and that there is currently no timeline for his return to the lineup.
If he has to miss an extended period of time it could be a damaging blow to a team at a position where it really can not afford one. If there is one player this Blackhawks team can least afford to lose, Crawford is probably the one.
Prior to his injury Crawford had been having an outstanding season for the Blackhawks and owned a .930 save percentage that is fifth best in the league. That performance has been huge for a Blackhawks team that has its share of flaws, especially when it comes to its defense.
The Blackhawks are allowing 34 shots on goal per game this season, the third highest total in the league and it continues a trend from recent seasons that has seen the team go from being one of the absolute best shot suppression teams in the league to one of the absolute worst. Typically, that has not been a great recipe for success in the NHL. The Pittsburgh Penguins showed last season that it is possible to win giving up that sort of shot volume, but onlly if a team has scoring depth and great goaltending to cover it up.
With Crawford in net the Blackhawks have been getting great goaltending. That has allowed them to stay in the top-five in goals against despite bleeding shots and shot attempts against.
So just how much has Crawford been saving the Blackhawks this season?
The difference between a .914 save percentage (which would still be above the league average this season) and the .930 mark on the same number of shots that Crawford has faced so far this season would have been an additional 10 goals against at this point. That may not seem like a lot right now, but that is only through 20 games. Those goals against quickly add up, and given a normal workload (think 60 games) that could be an additional 30 goals against over the course of a season.
That is a lot, and it could swing a season for a team that is currently sitting on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference.
What really hurts the Blackhawks this season is they don’t really have a proven backup that can step up in Crawford’s absence. At least not one that we know of yet. In recent years Scott Darling had proven to be one of the top backup goaltenders in the NHL and was more than capable of filling in for Crawford when he was injured or just simply needed a break or hit a slump. But Darling was traded over the summer to the Carolina Hurricanes to become their starter, turning the backup job over to Anton Forsberg.
In just six appearances this season Forsberg has already allowed 18 goals on just 187 shots and has managed only an .889 save percentage in his career.
The Blackhawks have won just one of his five starts so far this season.
Fortunately for the Blackhawks they don’t expect Crawford’s injury to be anything long-term.
They better hope that turns out to be the case.
When the Blackhawks were at the height of their power between 2010 and 2013 the rest of the team was so stacked that they didn’t really need elite goaltending to win.
Antti Niemi was solid in 2010, but not irreplaceable. That was proven the following offseason when they walked away from his arbitration ruling and allowed him to become an unrestricted free agent (they decided re-signing Niklas Hjalmarsson was far more vital to their success).
The same was mostly true for Crawford during their 2013 championship run. They had four dominant scoring lines and a defense that had four horses all in the prime of their careers that could shut down any offense. But the salary cap has ripped apart a lot of that forward depth while the defense is not what it used to be.
Players like Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell are gone, Brent Seabrook is a shell of his former self, and the rest of the unit outside of Duncan Keith is mostly a patchwork group of young players still finding their way and veterans signed on the cheap.
They still have forwards up front that can score, but their ability to prevent goals has shifted from having dominant defense to a huge reliance on their goaltender.
Now he might be the most important part of it.