The Blackhawks’ rookie goaltender Corey Crawford came off the Circus Trip with three starts, three wins, and a GAA hovering just below 1.00. The calls went out for a third straight start after his wins over the Ducks and Kings, and he got it on Tuesday night against St. Louis. He came away with another win, but I think he showed us exactly why doing a flip-flop for the starting role with Marty Turco is a mistake.
Before we get into that, I want to take you back ten years and revisit the story of two young goaltenders in the Blackhawks organ-eye-zation. Michael Leighton and Craig Anders(s)on — I really should tell that story about the extra ‘s’ — were both drafted by Chicago and came into the AHL in 2001. They played as a tandem in Norfolk, which was then the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, and over the next three years started to gain confidence at the pro level.
Here and there they would get the occasional call-up, mostly to sit on the bench at the UC and watch Steve Passmore flop all over the ice and get his ass handed to him. Then, disaster struck. Blackhawks’s starting goaltender Jocelyn Thibault injured his hip, underwent surgery and was to miss a total of 60 games during the 2003-04 season.
Now, understand that backup Steve Passmore was one of the Blackhawks’ “pet projects.” An older player with health problems, he was taken in by Old Man Wirtz and rescued from the ignominy of the minor leagues. He was a fan and press favorite, a positive force in the locker room and an all-around nice guy. But everyone who saw him play knew that his skill level only occasionally rose to the level of an NHL caliber netminder. With Thibault out, Passmore would not be able to step up.
However, this was also the era of Dollar Bill Wirtz, who cared far more about his liquor distribution business than he did about hockey. He merely wore the Blackhawks like so much bawdy jewelery, a prized possession to be showed off. He could give two shits about the product on the ice, as long as it didn’t cost him too much. So when Thibault went down with an injury, instead of trading for a genuine starting goaltender, he instructed the team to make do with what it had. That meant a rotating platoon of an aging never-was and two kids with diaper rash.
These two kids were promising goaltenders. Big, quick, and in Anders(s)on’s case a good set of instincts to boot. They could easily have been the Mike Richter/John Vanbiesbrouck tandem for the Blackhawks. Then this injury happened, and they got thrown into the deep end.
The short story is, they got shelled. And I’m not talking a little bit; they got shelled to the point of feeling sorry for them before the game even started. Whichever one of the two was on the bench on a given night at least would only have to watch the slaughter, not take part in it. It was that ugly.
Anders(s)on finished the season 6-14. Leighton finished 6-18. Their confidence was shattered, and soon afterwards they were both sent packing via the waiver wire — no return to the club for either of them. From promising and talented up-and-coming stars to throw-aways in one season.
It has taken nearly six years of one-year contracts, waiver assignments, and bouncing around in the minor leagues for these two to finally get in the groove, and to their credit they did not give up. Anders(s)on was the impetus for the Colorado Avalanche’s surprising surge in 2009-10, and Leighton was the goaltender that brought the Philadelphia Flyers within one goal and one win of hoisting the Stanley Cup last season.
Would they have not undergone the torture of that humiliating 2003-04 season in Chicago, who knows how much sooner they would have matured.
I see Corey Crawford and the calls for an Antti Niemi-esque role reversal, and I see the potential for the same kind of damage being done. People forget that the switch with Cristobal Huet was done out of necessity. Huet was sucking wind in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and Niemi was the Blackhawks’ only option. The fact that he managed to pull off a Championship victory was something you see only once in a generation. History shows this conclusively: Niemi was the exception, not the rule.
People also forget that a goaltender’s job is mostly mental, not physical. What kind of nut-case deliberately stands in front of a projectile going 90+ mph every day of his life? It’s a different breed of human being we’re talking about, in a lot of ways. Every night, no matter how bad the game is going, they have to keep their eyes on the puck, remember their job, anticipate, and play as if they are capable of stopping anything that comes at them. Losing 19 – 0? Coach still leaves you in? Suck it up, they’re dropping the puck.
This is a difficult skill to master (enter that one in the Understatement of the Century contest), and guys as old and experienced as Roberto Luongo still haven’t got the hang of it. That’s why we knock his whiny-bitch ass out of the playoffs every single time. In 2003, neither Craig Anders(s)on nor Michael Leighton had mastered it. Neither, in my opinion, has Corey Crawford.
For that reason, the Blackhawks must be cautious. Crawford is playing the best hockey of his life. I got a close-up look at him at this fall’s Training Camp Festival, and my first thoughts were, “Crap, this is a different kid!” He’s got the potential to be the future for the Hawks. He’s big, quick, steady, unflappable (so far), and his work on his fundamentals has yielded incredible results. He’s next year’s starter, and his play to date is showing that he may be able to handle that job — next year.
His four previous starts would have likely given Crawford some confidence. Then, Tuesday’s game happened. He was solid for 35 minutes as the Blackhawks forwards dominated play and built up a 5 – 1 lead against St. Louis — and then decided to take a little nap. Before you could say “EEEEEEEEEEEEEE-MEED-iately” it was 5 – 4, thanks to missed coverage, lazy back-checking, bone-headed defensive gaffes, and general sloppy play.
Crawford was hung out to dry, and you could see from his reaction after the third and fourth goals that he was starting to get flustered. Goal number three was a shot that would have sailed wide by several feet, but Crawford stuck out the blocker and it ricocheted off the inside of his glove into the net. That’s the first sign of the “old” Corey Crawford creeping back in. That’s the first sign that the kid was losing confidence.
Hopefully Crawford’s 15 minutes of unpleasantness on Tuesday will serve as a wake-up call to Coach Joel Quenneville and the rest of the Blackhawks’ faithful. Rushing a young goaltender into a role he’s not ready for is a recipe for disaster. Since Marty Turco is not performing badly, there is no *need* to move Crawford into a more prominent role than the 20 starts he was intended for at the start of the season. Hopefully Coach Q sees it that way, and trigger-happy fans and media will exercise more patience and caution when it comes to throwing our boy into the deep end.
The kid has a big future: let’s not ruin it.
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When Craig Anderson (one ‘s’) was in Juniors, he was trying to differentiate himself from other goalies for any scouts that would be watching. So he decided to add an ‘s’ to his name to try to make the scouts think he was from Europe! Thus, Craig Andersson (two ‘s’-es) was born. Sometime during the ill-fated 2003-04 season he fessed up to a reporter, told the Blackhawks organ-eye-zation the truth, and returned to plain old Craig Anderson.
And thus, he will forevermore be known to my readers as Craig Anders(s)on. You know, so nobody gets confused…