Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.
One of the main reasons the Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons is because starting netminder Corey Crawford has been limited to 28 and 39 games over the last two years. The veteran says he’s feeling 100 percent healthy, but his battle with concussions and vertigo can flare up at any minute.
“It’s hard to really think about,” Crawford said in April, per the Chicago Sun-Times. “When it lasted that long, I was just wondering when is it going to be over? How long is all the stuff going to last? Like the pressure in the head and that stuff … That was probably the worst.
“There’s blurred vision. And I didn’t really realize how bad it was until now where I’m [back to normal]. The pain wasn’t the worst pain in the world, but it was still kind of annoying day in, day out, 24 hours a day. After going through it and seeing how good I feel now, you realize, wow, that wasn’t fun.”
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It’s nice to see that Crawford’s feeling healthy again, but the ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to take anymore chances. This offseason, general manager Stan Bowman decided to get himself a quality insurance policy, as he signed Robin Lehner to a one-year, $5 million deal.
When Crawford went out of the lineup the last two seasons, he was replaced by Cam Ward, Collin Delia, Anton Forsberg, J-F Berube and Jeff Glass. Clearly, that list of netminders wasn’t good enough to keep the Blackhawks afloat. They had other issues too, but goaltending was a problem.
Last season, they were ranked 30th in the NHL in goals against. Only the Ottawa Senators gave up more goals than Chicago did last season. That doesn’t all fall on the goaltender (their defense was brutal), but a big part of the struggles came from not having their veteran work-horse between the pipes.
The ‘Hawks would clearly prefer to see Crawford stay healthy, but if he can’t suit up as often as they hope, they have a capable goaltender to replace him. Lehner didn’t anticipate having to settle for a one-year deal, but he realizes that he has a unique opportunity here.
“I know there’s an opportunity if I perform that I probably can stay, but that’s not my mindset this year,” Lehner told the Chicago Tribune in July. “My mindset is to come in and play as good hockey as I can and contribute to this team for this year and see what happens.”
The Vezina Trophy finalist had a terrific year with the New York Islanders, as he had a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage last season. Of course, he posted those numbers in Barry Trotz’s air-tight defensive system, so he still has something to prove now that he’s on a new team.
Two of the things the Blackhawks need to improve can be helped by solid goaltending. First, they have to cut their goals against if they’re going to make it back to the playoffs. Again, that doesn’t all fall on the goalie but he can certainly make a difference in that area.
Second, the 31st ranked penalty-kill in the NHL needs to get better. They can’t be killing penalties at a 72 percent clip in 2019-20. That’s nowhere near good enough. Your goaltender can often be your best penalty-killer, which means that Crawford and Lehner have work to do when their team goes down a man.
Bowman has $11 million committed to their two goaltenders next season, but both players are set to become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. If this season doesn’t go well, the Blackhawks’ crease could look a whole lot more different in 2020-21.
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.