Corey Crawford announced his retirement from the NHL on Saturday afternoon, ending a 10-year career that was never fully appreciated for how great it was while it was happening.
When you think back to the Chicago Blackhawks teams of the 2010s, the ones that won three Stanley Cups in six years, the first players you think of as the key cogs in the machine are almost always going to be Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Duncan Keith.
If you were going to pinpoint a weakness, goaltending was probably the one that would always get mentioned first. Not so much because it was a problem, but mostly because it was an afterthought nationally. The forwards were so good, the defense was so steady, that there was this perception that the team was going to win no matter who the goalie was.
But Crawford was far better and far more impactful than an afterthought or a passenger. He was always one of the main people driving the bus.
I remember back during the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, when the Blackhawks were on their way to their first championship with Crawford as their starter, there was a constant narrative that his “weak glove hand” was something that could have been exposed and hold the team back.
In the Stanley Cup Final in Boston that year the narrative reached its boiling point after a 6-5 Blackhawks win in Game 1 which prompted Crawford to sarcastically fire back with the line: “Last series they were talking about my blocker. Both sides are bad, I guess.”
This criticism and narrative was taking place during a postseason run that he would finish with a .932 save percentage, one of the highest marks in a single postseason over the past two decades. This is where that “not always fully appreciated while it was happening” point comes into play.
It was a postseason where he had a save percentage of .917 in 19 of his 23 starts, including 12 starts where it was higher than .935.
For as great as that Blackhawks team was, it was not always dominant in the playoffs. Winning was not a foregone conclusion.
If you recall, Toews went the first 20 games that postseason with just one goal. Kane scored only two in the first 15 games. A Blackhawks team that was the second-highest scoring team during the regular season (3.10 goals per game), lost nearly half a goal in the playoffs (down to 2.75) and was still able to consistently win close, low-scoring games (including three games where they managed just two goals) in large part because of Crawford’s play. Given his dominance and consistency, he probably deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy. Or at least deserved a bigger argument than was ever mounted in his favor.
Two years later he was briefly (and shockingly) benched in a First Round series win against Nashville before reclaiming his starting spot in the decisive game. He then played lights out for the remainder of the playoffs. It was during that Stanley Cup Final where he helped slow down a high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning team by allowing just 10 goals in the six-game series. He never allowed more than one goal in any of the Blackhawks’ four wins, three of which were 2-1 victories. The Blackhawks never scored more than three goals in a game in that series, and only once more than two (a game they lost). He was, quite literally, the biggest difference in that Stanley Cup Final series.
How consistently good was Crawford? Just look at the five-year window between 2012 and 2017. During that time the Blackhawks won a pair of championships, played in an additional Western Conference Final, and won a Presidents’ Trophy.
Crawford was one of the best goalies in the league during that stretch.
[Related: ProHockeyTalk’s 2020 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
• He had .921 all situations save percentage during the regular season, sixth among 46 goalies with at least 100 games.
• That included a .930 even-strength save percentage that was fifth among that same sampling of goalies.
• He also had a .920 postseason all situations save percentage. For the three years between 2012 and 2015, when the Blackhawks reached the Conference Final each year and won two Stanley Cups, that number went up to .925 in all situations.
Despite that run of excellence he never finished higher than fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting, only ever received one first place vote (and only seven total votes over those five years), and was never given serious consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy despite being a difference-maker on two Stanley Cup winning teams.
Even as the Blackhawks’ dynasty started to decline, Crawford remained one of their most consistent (and valuable) players to help keep them a playoff team during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Toward the end concussion issues caused major issues for Crawford and left his future in doubt, only to see him come back during the 2019-20 season and once again play at a high level. It is very likely he could have done so again this season for New Jersey.
Crawford’s career is probably not enough for the Hall of Fame, but it is a career that might be looked at with more respect at its conclusion than it ever received while it was happening. At least it should be. Because for the better part of a decade he was one of the best, most consistent goalies in the world and helped turn the Blackhawks into a mini-dynasty.