The Chicago Blackhawks’ 2017-18 season took a turn for the worse following their Dec. 23 loss to the New Jersey Devils. That was the final time All-Star goaltender Corey Crawford manned the blue paint for the Blackhawks, and that was the biggest reason they failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Never Found Groove After Crawford Went Down
Crawford finished his season with a career-high .929 save percentage (SV%) and a sterling 2.27 goals-against average (GAA) in 28 games. The Blackhawks had 39 points (17-13-5) after Crawford’s final game and were just one point out of the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference and four points out of third place in the Central Division. They would rack up just 37 points (16-26-5) over the final 47 games of the season with the rotation of Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass, Jean-Francois Berube and Colin Delia, quickly falling to the bottom of the Central standings.
As poor as Forsberg looked at times during the season, his .908 SV% and 2.97 GAA was by far the best of those who made starts after the Christmas break. He was the only of the bunch to have a SV% above .900 and a GAA below 3.00.
Forsberg, Glass, Berube, and Delia combined for a .897 SV% and a 3.52 GAA, which is not going to win many hockey games. Obviously, Crawford was unlikely to maintain his .929 SV% over the final 47 games of the season. Even if he regressed to his career average of .919, the Blackhawks would have given up nearly one less goal per game, and that would have kept them in the playoff race longer at the very least. Crawford has been covering up a lot of blemishes on this team for the past couple of seasons, and without the help of a backup like Antti Raanta or Scott Darling, the team was exposed in his long-term absence.
Crawford’s Condition Remains a Mystery
While there no official word from the Blackhawks other than the standard “upper-body injury,” there were various reports that stated Crawford was dealing with post-concussion issues including suffering from vertigo. Crawford returned to the ice in late January and even joined his teammates on Feb. 12 to face shots for the first time.
“I don’t want to get into any of that,” Crawford replied when asked about the specifics of his injury, per the Chicago Tribune. “We’re just trying to be positive and look forward and see what comes. We just hope it’s good and fast as it can be.”
That was the final time we saw Crawford on the ice with the Blackhawks. Head coach Joel Quenneville hinted a few times afterwards that he was close to returning, but he never returned to practice. Did he have a setback or did management decide it was not worth bringing him back to a team that had such a small shot at making the postseason and risk further injury? We were never given an answer, even during Quenneville’s and general manager Stan Bowman’s exit interviews following the regular season finale.
July 1 Will Provide Big Clue on Crawford’s Health
The best-case scenario for the Blackhawks is that Crawford shows up to training camp in September at full health and he plays at the high level we are used to seeing. However, what Bowman does in free agency will give us an idea of just how confident the organization is that Crawford can be relied on next season.
Forsberg is under contract for the 2018-19 season, and if Crawford is good to go to be the number-one goaltender, he will likely be the first in line for the backup position. His biggest problem last year was between his ears. It seemed that every time he looked to be turning a corner, he’d give up a soft goal and then sit for the next three or four games. If he only needs to play 15 games or so next season, you could do worse than Forsberg as your number-two netminder.
If Bowman goes out and signs another goaltender who can carry a heavy workload, then Crawford may not be ready to go this fall. As Jay Zawaski of 670 The Score pointed out last month, former Blackhawk Carter Hutton could be one of these types of netminders the Blackhawks pursue.
Some other unrestricted free agent goaltenders that fall into this category include Kari Lehtonen, Jaroslav Halak, Jonathan Bernier, Eddie Lack, Chad Johnson, Ondrej Pavelec and Anton Khudobin. If any of those guys are signed on or around July 1, things do not look good for the Blackhawks. Hopefully, Crawford is on the mend and ready for action this fall.