Corey Crawford was one of a few bright spots for the Blackhawks last season. Though they were unable to progress past the first round of the playoffs, the emergence of Crawford gave the Hawks and their fans a glimpse at stability at the goaltender position for the first time in years.
We all know the story of Crawford’s road to grabbing a starting gig in the NHL. After spending several years grinding as a Rockford Icehog in the AHL, Crawford finally had a shot to get regular minutes at the highest level, though he was expected to back up Marty Turco.
A combination of Turco’s style of play and a struggling defense led to Turco losing hold of the starting job, and for the second consecutive year the Blackhawks rallied around a rookie netminder.
Crawford was very similar to former Hawk Antti Niemi in net, proving to be a contrast to Turco. A big body in net, Hawks defensemen were able to jump into the offensive play more, as they were more confident with the stay-at-home type in Crawford in net, rather than the smaller, puck-handling Marty Turco.
Crawford finished the regular season with 33 wins, a 2.30 GAA, and .917 save percentage, along with four shutouts. Had it not been for some other fantastic rookie performances on the offensive side, Crawford may have been at least a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Of course, Crawford was also dazzling in the postseason, with a shoutout and a 2.21 GAA against the NHL’s top seeded Canucks. Had it not been for pure exhaustion for the guys playing in front of him, Crawford may have stolen that series from Vancouver.
Stan Bowman put Crawford at the top of his offseason priorities this summer, just a year after watching Niemi walk away because Chicago couldn’t pony up the dough to keep their Stanley Cup-winning netminder around. Bowman quickly took care of Crawford, signing him to a three-year deal, worth about $8 million when it’s all said and done. That could prove to be a bargain, given the potential that Crawford flashed this season.
But with a solid first season behind him, and a new contract, Corey Crawford isn’t going to be able to relax this offseason. He’s going to have to prove he can do it again.
One thing is certain: there is no goalie controversy this year. The Blackhawks are heading into the season with Alexander Salak and training camp invitee Ray Emery duking it out for the backup goaltender job, but neither are expected to even touch Crawford’s starting job, barring some sort of complete meltdown.
The thing about how Joel Quenneville handles his goaltenders, though, is he’s going to play the hot hand. That much has always been sure, and it’s how Marty Turco eventually lost his starting spot with the team last season. Crawford has already won over the fanbase with a terrific rookie campaign, but the work doesn’t get any easier for him heading into his sophomore season.
At least Crawford can sleep better at night knowing the team in front of him is better, which would take a bulk of that pressure he had against Vancouver off of his shoulders and should make things easier for the 26-year-old netminder.
For the Blackhawks to win another Stanley Cup, it’s going to require everything to come together. We saw Crawford duplicate Niemi’s postseason success, his teammates just weren’t able to get it done in front of him. If things fall into place as expected with the forward lines and the defense improves, Crawford will be the final piece of the puzzle for playoff success and will have to prove he can carry the team again.