Chicago Blackhawks’ Goaltender Options If Corey Crawford Stays ‘Not 100 Percent’

The Chicago Blackhawks signed a new, more proven backup goaltender this offseason to work behind Corey Crawford. But what if Crow cannot get back to 100 percent in time for the start of the 2018-19 season?

Last week, I wrote about how Chicago Blackhawks fans attending the Blackhawks Convention, which ran last Friday through Sunday, should not judge goaltender Corey Crawford’s health based on his appearance or tight lips regarding the situation.

Well, something happened there. Crow was not exactly tight-lipped about the injury issues that kept him out a large portion of the 2017-18 season. In fact, he explicitly told the media Friday that he still was “not 100 percent.”

So I’m walking back my statement a bit, because when the guy who hasn’t played professional hockey since Dec. 23, 2017, tells you he still isn’t completely healthy in July 2018, there’s certainly a takeaway. Even as Blackhawks officials tried to walk back Crow’s comments throughout the rest of Friday, the focus was clearly on what Crow had said to begin with.

As it should be. This guy knows his own health, and he knows better than anyone when he’ll be ready to skate again and play again. Ultimately, no one except Crow can say anything with certainty about his health without first watching him skate and take shots in net.

Now that we at least have some sort of baseline for Crow’s well-being, it’s pretty clear the Blackhawks need to (if they weren’t already) start planning for the chance Cam Ward is the starting goaltender in early October. If that’s the case, then Crow isn’t going to be sitting on the bench.

This leads to the question: What are the Blackhawks to do if their newly signed backup is now their starter? How do they go about refilling that backup role?

Option 1: Stay within the system

I guess it’s somewhat lucky a bunch of guys got to play goal for the Blackhawks last season. Some of them are still with the team today, so they should be a little more ready for what to expect if they’re called upon in 2018-19.

Of that group (not including Scott Foster), both Jeff Glass and J-F Berube have departed. Anton Forsberg and Collin Delia both are still Blackhawks athletes at this time. On top of that, Wouter Peeters is waiting in the wings as far as prospects go.

This is probably concerning to Blackhawks fans (at least it should be), but I think this is the least-likely of the three options I’m going to present. Unless Delia starts at the AHL level this season and makes some massive strides — or really impresses in training camp, similar to Alexandre Fortin a couple years ago — I don’t see this scenario playing out.

It’s clear coach Joel Quenneville does not trust Forsberg with much of anything. Maybe, if Crow is still out to start 2018-19, Forsberg will open the year on the bench behind Ward. But I don’t think he’ll actually be utilized. It’d just be a stopgap, perhaps for a single game before the Blackhawks do something else.

Option 2: Explore free agency

Be ready to be entirely unimpressed with the names I’m about to throw out. Yes, that goes even for those of you who were unimpressed with the Ward signing.

The leading free-agent goaltenders right now, according to Spotrac, are as follows: Kari Lehtonen, Steve Mason, Eddie Lack and Ondrej Pavelec. Admittedly, those are just guys with name power. Former Montreal backup Dustin Tokarski also is on this list, as is former Blackhawk Michael Leighton and ex-Buffalo netminder Anders Lindback.

So … yeah, it’s pretty disheartening to see that list. To be fair, most of these guys aren’t going to cost a lot to sign right now, which is the only positive about this situation.

This is probably the easiest route for the Blackhawks to go, as they currently have about $5.5 million in salary cap space with a prospective 22-man roster projected by Cap Friendly.

Lehtonen’s last contract was at $5.9 million per season, but he didn’t play anywhere close to earning it. Mason made $4.1 million in 2017-18, but was bought out before his two-year deal with Winnipeg even ended. The rest of these guys would be easy to sign while also keeping ample space open for another deal.

But if the Blackhawks went this way, it would very likely tell us Crow isn’t playing in 2018-19. It’s pretty clear the Blackhawks would be in bad shape in net at this point, as a tandem of Ward and any of the above guys isn’t going to replace Crow in any way. It’d definitely be a stopgap, and it’d allow guys like Delia, Forsberg and Peeters to further develop in lower leagues.

Option 3: Make a trade

This is the most uncertain of the options, obviously. It’s not clear who the Blackhawks could or would target if they were dealing for the goaltender. In the last such situation, they acquired Forsberg in the Artemi Panarin trade. That hasn’t worked out thus far.

Every Blackhawks rumor that has come up of late has surrounded Montreal’s Max Pacioretty — neither a defenseman nor a goaltender. Chicago could easily be under-the-radar searching for goalie trades, but the questions are: who is available, and what do the Blackhawks give up?

The former question is essentially impossible to answer. Big names can move at the drop of a pin (see the P.K. SubbanShea Weber trade back in the day), so this doesn’t just have to be the Blackhawks upgrading slightly on Forsberg. They’ve cleared the cap space to make a bigger upgrade.

And that didn’t have to be achieved at the time they signed Ward, because the Blackhawks may well have truly believed Crow could be ready for 2018-19. That’s what everyone not named Crow is saying still. Trades usually take longer to work out than free agency signings, anyway.

Forsberg is definitely in play for any such trade, I think. Artem Anisimov also seems likely to be available. Connor Murphy moving wouldn’t surprise me, either. You’d have to think a draft pick or solid minor league name could be involved for a legitimate starter.

This is all just so speculative, and I really don’t think the Blackhawks would go this route unless they’re convinced not only that Crow misses all of 2018-19, but that he’ll never be the same goaltender he was before, ever again.

Crow is 33 years old, so it’s not like he has an overabundance of years left on him (unless he goes all Dominik Hasek on us). That was part of the reason Forsberg was acquired in the first place. If the Blackhawks go out an trade for a legit starter — putting Ward into the backup spot again — it’s a blaring signal Crow is not coming back anytime soon, if ever.

Summary

Out of these three options presented for compensating for Crow’s possible absence in 2018-19, I think the second one is most likely to happen. Indications exist that Crow won’t necessarily play next season, but not that he won’t play again. As such, Option 2 beats out Option 3 right now.

Option 1 would trump them all if the Blackhawks’ brass actually trusted what it has in the system. But Forsberg seems to have quickly lost that trust, while Delia and Peeters don’t seem fully ready for an NHL role.

This would all be rendered moot if Crow shows up in the crease for the Oct. 4 at Ottawa. But the Blackhawks no doubt are preparing for the opposite to occur. It’s fair enough for fans to think that way as well.