Fans of the Chicago Blackhawks have been experiencing a weird phenomenon lately. For the first time this decade, the team has been undergoing serious changes. Players like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are frequently mentioned in trade rumours, while other longtime-Hawks like Artemi Anisimov and Nick Schmaltz have already been dealt.
After not recording a single playoff win since the 2016 post-season, general manager Stan Bowman is finally rearranging. This includes overhauling the Chicago Blackhawks goalies.
Corey Crawford, Chicago’s starter since 2010, may finally be stepping down as the king of the Chicago Blackhawks goalies. This is a tremendous blow to the diehards in Chicago. Crawford is a borderline religious icon in the Windy City, leading the team to a tremendous post-season track record over the past nine seasons.
Seeing such a legendary figure step down from his role as the team’s starter to a backup role could damper fans’ excitement. However, the man between-the-pipes is far from the biggest concern in Chicago.
The Bright Future of the Chicago Blackhawks Goalies
There’s no doubting Crawford has the ability to dominate. He’s a two-time William M. Jennings Trophy winner, recording a goals-against-average of 2.30-or-lower in five of his nine seasons as Chicago’s starter. He’s been the backbone of the Hawks roster since the 2010-11 season. His terrific play, combined with the star offence the Hawks have boasted over the past decade, has led Chicago to two Stanley Cups and a clear dynasty status.
There are plenty of statistics to back up Crawford’s claim to fame but every fan in and outside of Chicago is well aware of his prowess.
Yet, his recent injury issues could be the writing on the wall for Crawford. He’s clearly in need of less responsibility, as he counts down the minutes until retirement. The Hawks front office saw this and signed the terrific Robin Lehner to a one-year contract. Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist this year, alongside absolutely elite goalies in Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevsky. Lehner had a great case for the award but lost to Vasilevsky in the end. He did, however, win the Jennings.
Last year, Lehner was the netminder behind the defensive-powerhouse New York Islanders. He posted the third-lowest goals-against-average, 2.13. He also ranked second in terms of save percentage of .930. In 46 games total, Lehner set a record of 25-13-5 while sharing ice time with Thomas Greiss. His tremendous stat line goes on-and-on. In short, Lehner was all-around terrific last season.
Chicago Blackhawks Goalies Tandem
The duo of Crawford and Lehner could very well be one of the best the league has to offer. Crawford has a good argument for a Hall-of-Fame induction in the future, proving to be one of the best goalies in the league in every year of his career, save for last. In diminished minutes, Crawford will have much less weight on his shoulders and could easily return to form.
Lehner will take the bulk of the responsibility, though. The young goaltender opened up about substance abuse and mental illness that have plagued him his whole career. With the move from the Buffalo Sabres to the Islanders, last year, came a wave of sobriety for Lehner.
Not only was his battle, and victory, over substance abuse a touching story that won him the Bill Masterson Trophy, it also clearly changed his game. Last year, he established himself as one of the best goalies in the league. With the newfound spark, the chances that Lehner keeps up his strong play are high.
Cause for Concern
Of course, nothing can be perfect for Chicago. While both goalies have tremendous potential and could form one of the best goalie duos in recent history, there are a handful of hurdles for both goalies to overcome.
Crawford’s First Concussion
Such a troubled history of severe concussions is worrisome for any player, especially an aging, veteran goaltender like Crawford. A great timeline done by Brandon Cain and Dave Melton shows how serious Crawford’s concussion-storyline was. His injury suffered in 2017 is particularly of note.
As the aforementioned timeline lays out, Crawford’s concussion was cause for worry after initially being written off by head coach Joel Quenneville. The injury held him out for the second half of the 2017-18 season. It was reported in mid-January of 2018 that Crawford was suffering from post-concussion syndrome and vertigo-like symptoms.
Things only went downhill for Crawford from there. He had a limited summer and wasn’t able to suit up for the Hawks training camp prior to last season. At the time of training camp, Crawford announced that the symptoms from the concussion he suffered nine months earlier were still lingering. Despite that, he made his season debut on October 18, where he allowed four goals on pace to a 4-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes.
Crawford’s luck got even worse as the season progressed. He collided with the post on a play in mid-December of last season and, yet again, was diagnosed with a concussion. It held him out for roughly two months.
This is a long-winded way of saying that Crawford is suffering from a concussion plague. He recorded two in under a year, with one being noticeably severe. The traumatic injuries showed through in his play, too. In the 23 games he played in between the two concussions, he set a record of 6-14-2. This included one five-game losing streak and another eight-game cold streak. He recorded a goals-against-average of 3.09 in that span, with a save percentage of .902.
The pessimist amongst the Hawks fan base will tell you that Crawford’s career is done. After so many hits to the head, he’s clearly lost his touch and doesn’t stand a chance to return to the legendary form he once had. Yet, this outrageous of a claim may be a bit too much. While yes, Crawford should be considering prioritizing his health and retiring, all hope isn’t lost for him in Chicago’s net.
In between his two concussions last year, Crawford played terrible hockey, at least by his standards. He was being outplayed by Cam Ward and looked noticeably rattled on a nightly basis. Yet, the latter of the two brain injuries wasn’t nearly as severe. After suffering his injury this past season, Crawford went through rigorous concussion protocols and then sat out for what seemed like an extended period of time.
This was clearly to rest him up more with the prior, much more severe, head injury in mind. Once he returned from his injury, he seemed to be much more comfortable in net.
While he wasn’t as good as once upon a time, his play still added a tremendous boost to the Hawks lineup and brought them within a fighting chance of a playoff berth. In total, he played in 16 games between his return in February and the end of the year. In those games, he set a record of 8-4-3. He allowed an average of 2.31 goals each game, also tallying a save percentage of .919.
These are terrific numbers from a player who just a few months earlier looked completely lost.
With the Hawks missing the playoffs, Crawford got a well-earned boost to his summer. If his play at the end of last season is any indication, fans will see a much better version of their beloved Crawford next year. The long summer break and diminished role next season will only serve to further help the veteran goalie.
Robin Lehner’s Consistency
A reborn Crawford doesn’t pull Chicago fans out of the woodworks, though. There are still plenty of worries with Lehner. While a newfound lifestyle has surely made an impact on Lehner’s play, there’s still a healthy amount of skeptics out there.
Looking at the numbers, Lehner’s 2018-19 season does look like quite an anomaly. While he was a star last year, he’s been fairly average in every season before that. Before his stint with the Islanders, Lehner spent three years with the Sabres and five with the Ottawa Senators.
In total, through those eight years, he had a record of 72-97-35. His career goals-against-average was 2.82 and his save percentage was .915. Considering the quality of the teams he was on, these measly stats show that he’s had potential all along.
His best year before moving to the Islanders, excluding his 12-game rookie season, was the 2015-16 season, his first year in Buffalo. He had a decent goals-against-average (2.47) and a strong save percentage (.927) but still only managed a record of 5-9-5.
Skeptics will stick to the losing record. While that may be a bit naive, it does have some merit. Lehner showed positives in almost every year of his career but simply couldn’t compete when a poor defence was in front of him.
This may be a cause for worry in Chicago. The team has taken definite strides to improve their defence but still ranks in the bottom half of the league in terms of blue-liners. Last season, they allowed the second-most goals-against in the entire league (290). The only team to allow more than Chicago were the league-worst Senators (302).
If the Hawks defence can’t considerably step their game up next year, there’s a definite concern. The Islanders were one of the best defensive teams in recent history last year, led by the defence-first minded Barry Trotz. For Lehner to go from one of the best to one of the worst blue-lines in the league may cause a bit of lag in his play.
These are well-known concerns, though, and is the primary reason why the Hawks only signed him to a one-year deal. If he manages to keep his spark, he’s almost guaranteed a long-term deal with Chicago next summer. However, he might be left in the dust when his contract expires.
He’s taking on a lot of responsibility with his new team. He’ll be the sure-fire starter and will need to perform to help keep Crawford in line. If he falls victim to another poor defence, he could cripple the Hawks chances.
In the End
There is a healthy amount of optimism and pessimism surrounding the duo of Crawford and Lehner. Both players have terrific accolades to their name. If all goes well, with Crawford returning to form and Lehner continuing his hot streak, the Blackhawks will undoubtedly boast one of, if not the, best goalie tandem in the league. Both netminders have the potential to absolutely dominate opposing teams. Combining this with the Hawks terrific offence is an easy recipe for the post-season.
Yet, there are still plenty of question marks over their heads.