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Analyzing the Blackhawks’ goaltending options

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There are lot of reasons the Chicago Blackhawks run of nine consecutive postseason appearances came to a sudden end during the 2017-18 season.

Those reasons included, but were not limited to, the fact Jonathan Toews has started to slow down offensively (don’t deny it, it’s happening) with several other core players joining him.

Marian Hossa‘s career came to an abrupt end.

The front office badly whiffed on the trade that saw them send Artemi Panarin to Columbus for a Brandon Saad reunion.

But the biggest issue was probably the fact starting goalie Corey Crawford was limited to just 27 games and none of the five — yes, five! — goalies they used in an effort to replace him where able to provide the team with anything close to adequate NHL goaltending.

The numbers speak for themselves: With Crawford in the lineup the Blackhawk were 16-9-2, a record that would have put them at a 103-point pace over 82 games. Crawford’s .929 save percentage, which was among the best in the NHL, was a significant part of that.

Without him in the lineup they were just 17-30-8, a record that would have put them on a 65-point pace over 82 games. In other words, one of the worst teams in the league. The combined .902 save percentage from Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, Jeff Glass, Collin Deila, and emergency fill-in Scott Foster (to be fair, he did stop all seven shots he faced!) contributed significantly to those struggles.

On Wednesday, Berube was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Obviously the return of a healthy Crawford will be significant factor in whether or not the Blackhawks are able to rebound in 2018-19.

The problem: Nobody really knows anything about where Crawford is in his recovery from what the team will only refer to as an “upper-body injury.” Prior to the NHL draft this past week the Blackhawks offered an update on Crawford which really wasn’t much of an update at all.

Here is general manager Stan Bowman in a conference call with reporters, via the Chicago Sun Times:

“What I said at the end of the year is still the case now. We expect Corey to be back,” Bowman said during a pre-NHL draft conference call with media. “We don’t have any reason to think that’s not going to happen.”

“All the players are preparing for next season. Corey is in that same preparation mode. … Nothing has changed.”

Bowman all said the Blackhawks expect him to be available for the start of training camp in a couple of months. Until Crawford is back on the ice and actually taking shots in the Blackhawks’ net the entire situation will remain a mystery. And even when — if? — that does happen the Blackhawks should still probably be in the market for some sort of capable backup or insurance policy, because the quintet of players they used this past season was obviously not good enough.

[Related: PHT Power Rankings: The top-20 NHL Free Agents]

The question, of course, is where they go to find that insurance policy.

Scott Powers of the Athletic reported this week that the Blackhawks have reached out to Jonathan Bernier, Carter Hutton and Cam Ward, while TSN’s Pierre LeBrun mentioned that Ward could be a “strong” possibility to land in Chicago on July 1.

Jay Zawaski of 670 The Score also reported that a deal may already be in the works.

The concern there if you’re a Blackhawks fan is that Ward hasn’t been very good for the better part of the past six years.

Another way of putting it is that Ward has been one of the least productive goalies in the NHL.

Just consider that since the start of the 2012-13 season there have been 59 goalies that have appeared in at least 100 games in the NHL.

Cam Ward’s .906 save percentage during that stretch ties him for the worst mark in the league with Mike Condon, Anders Nilsson, and Ben Scrivens.

His .913 save percentage in even-strength situations again puts him in a tie for the worst mark along with Condon.

On one hand, the argument could be made that Ward has spent almost all of that time playing behind a team that hasn’t had much success and that joining the Blackhawks might help him. But for the past few years the Hurricanes have been one of the NHL’s best teams when it comes to suppressing shots against (the Blackhawks in recent years have become only mediocre in that area) and hasn’t had to face an extremely heavy work load. There is a strong argument to be made that goaltending is one of the biggest reasons the team has not had more success on the ice, with Ward being the primary goaltender for most of that run. He also is 34 years old and turns 35 in February, which isn’t exactly a prime age for goalies — especially ones that do not have a track record of consistently strong play.

The other potential free agent options are far more appealing.

On Wednesday, our Joey Alfieri argued that Robin Lehner, who was not extended a qualifying offer by the Buffalo Sabres, would make a lot of sense for the Detroit Red Wings. I would argue that he would probably be an ideal fit in Chicago. He is coming off of a down year in Buffalo — who wasn’t? — but had a lot of success in the two years prior while playing behind what has been a mostly dreadful team. He is not a star by any means but he might have the most upside of any of the free agents available.

Bernier is also an intriguing option because you know exactly what you’re going to get, and in a perfect world it is exactly what the Blackhawks might need — a solid, capable backup that can fill in for an extended period of time if Crawford’s situation remains what it is.

Among the same 59 goalie sampling mentioned above with Ward, Bernier finds himself sitting 30th and 25th in save percentage and even-strength save percentage out of that group. In other words, he is not going to steal you many games, but he probably will not lose you many games, either.

Even that would be a massive upgrade over what the Blackhawks were using in net a season ago. It would also be a far more intriguing option than a soon-to-be 35-year-old Cam Ward.

More NHL Free Agency:
• Ilya Kovalchuk, Kings agree to terms on three-year deal
• John Carlson gets $64 million payday as Capitals lock up defenseman

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

NY governor says pro teams can resume training

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says teams in his state can return to their facilities for training after a pause of more than two months.

”Starting today, all the New York professional sports leagues will be able to begin training camps,” the Democratic governor said during a news conference Sunday.

The New York City area was one of the hardest-hit parts of the U.S. by the coronavirus pandemic, but COVID-19 deaths and new infections in the state have been trending downward.

Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL are discussing the resumption of their seasons with their players’ unions.

”I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena – do it! Do it!” Cuomo said. ”Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

WCHA’s Alabama-Huntsville cuts hockey program

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Alabama-Huntsville is dropping men’s hockey and men’s and women’s tennis as part of budget cuts in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials said athletes in those sports who want to join another team’s roster will be released without penalty and free to transfer immediately. If they choose to stay, their current scholarships will be honored for the duration of their academic careers.

Alabama-Huntsville was one of the only southern schools to have a men’s hockey varsity program. The Chargers won Division II national titles in 1996 and 1998 and were Division II runners-up in 1994 and 1997 before making the move to the Division I level for the 1998-99 season.

Men’s hockey had been the lone Division I sport for Alabama-Huntsville. It competes at the Division II level in all other sports.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

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Canada’s NHL teams have offered season-ticket holders rebate or refund options in acknowledgment that no more 2019-20 regular-season games will be played in front of fans in their respective buildings.

In a four-day span May 13-16, all seven teams contacted their season-ticket bases with options and, in some cases, deadlines to make a decision, according to The Canadian Press.

“It has become increasingly apparent, that any possibility will not include any further games being played this season in front of fans at Bell MTS Place,” the Winnipeg Jets said in an email.

That admission may seem anticlimactic given leagues and teams around the world are either playing in empty stadiums, or trying to figure out a way to just resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But season-ticket money is a key element of NHL business. Clubs are loathe to part with it.

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money.

Toronto Maple Leafs season-ticket holders had to declare they wanted their money back by Victoria Day or a credit would be applied to their accounts.

Their Montreal Canadiens counterparts had to make a decision by Friday, while the Vancouver Canucks’ deadline is June 3.

NHLPA board approves 24-team, return-to play-format

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We have our first step towards resuming the 2019-20 season with the approval of the return-to-play format by the NHLPA Executive Board.

The 31 NHL team representatives voted and a majority gave the thumbs up to the 24-team, conference-based proposal.

According to TVA’s Renaud Lavoie, the vote was 29-2 in favor.

Now the plan moves on to the Board of Governors for their approval.

From the NHLPA:

The Executive Board of the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) has authorized further negotiations with the NHL on a 24-team return to play format to determine the winner of the 2020 Stanley Cup. Several details remain to be negotiated and an agreement on the format would still be subject to the parties reaching agreement on all issues relevant to resuming play.

If the BOG green lights it, the next steps would include figuring out proper safety protocols for all involved and how the hub city plan would work, among numerous other details.

Based on points percentage at the time of the March 12 NHL pause, the top four teams in each conference (Boston, Tampa, Washington, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Colorado, Vegas, Dallas) will receive a first-round bye. Round 1 will feature eight play-in matchups in a best-of-five series.

As the play-in round takes place, the eight conference leaders could potentially take part in a mini tournament that will determine the seeding for Round 2. Reseeding after the play-in round is another topic likely to be discussed.

Here’s what it might end up looking like:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Bruins
• Lightning
• Capitals
• Flyers

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Penguins
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Canadiens

(6) Hurricanes
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Rangers

(7) Islanders
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Panthers

(8) Maple Leafs
vs.                              — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Blue Jackets

WESTERN CONFERENCE

ROUND 1 BYES
• Blues
• Avalanche
• Golden Knights
• Stars

PLAY-IN ROUND
(5) Oilers
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 4 seed
(12) Blackhawks

(6) Predators
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 3 seed
(11) Coyotes

(7) Canucks
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 2 seed
(10) Wild

(8) Flames
vs.                                — Winner plays No. 1 seed
(9) Jets

Games would be played without fans with teams based in hub cities potentially located in both the U.S. and Canada. Columbus, Las Vegas, and Edmonton are a few of the cities that have shown interested in playing host to playoff games.

Since the 24-team format entered the rumor mill, it’s received a mixed reaction from players.

“Twenty-four teams sounds like a lot of teams to me,” Capitals defenseman John Carlson told Mike Tirico on Thursday. “You have to make sure there is some level playing field in terms of intensity…So while 24 teams sounds like a lot, maybe due to logistics, that makes the most sense.”

“I will say that when it comes to the format I think it is almost impossible to make everyone happy … the situation is what it is,” Lars Eller of the Capitals said via the Washington Post. “It is far from perfect. We are going to manage the best we can and I do think we will come together and find a solution regarding that. It is not going to be easy.”

Kris Letang told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman that Penguins players voted “yes” on the proposal citing “greater good for everyone.”

“At the end of the day, nobody gets exactly what they want,” Letang said. “But, we all want what is best for hockey and to continue to grow the game.”

MORE:
Predators’ Duchene: ‘You don’t want to have a COVID Cup’
Our Line Starts podcast: Evaluating fairness of 24-team NHL playoff

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.