No Vezina, No Problem for Corey Crawford

For many goaltenders, the Vezina Trophy is the pinnacle of all accomplishments, and over the years, Corey Crawford’s name has been towards the bottom of the list of candidates; In fact, there have been times his name has been left off altogether. His numbers are perhaps not as consistent, or  as flashy as Carey Price, but it would seem the results have been in Crawford’s favor. The Crow, as he is known by teammates and fans alike has won two Stanley Cups in his nine seasons at the NHL level (though only six of them were in a starting role).

Playoff Performer

For Crawford, his regular career average save percentage is .917, just a few points off of perennial Vezina Trophy favorite Carey Price (.920), and yet he is rarely considered an elite netminder. In fact, he is often completely overlooked as many believe that Crawford’s success is a by-product of the team he plays in front of.

Though, in 2015, the Blackhawks were widely considered to have the weakest defensive corps going into the playoffs, in spite of having perennial Norris Trophy contender Duncan Keith and veterans like Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.  Series after series, it was said their thin defense would be their undoing, and yet they ended the season with the Stanley Cup.

Of course, there are few people who will give Crawford credit, in part because he faltered badly in Nashville, and were it not for the heroics of back-up Scott Darling the Blackhawks could easily have been a one-and-done team.  They could have been, but let’s not forget that Crawford pulled off a little heroics of his own in back-up of Scott Darling to get out of that series.  There is no doubt Crawford was not outstanding to start the series, but he ended it on a high that he carried throughout the remainder of the playoffs. Crow is not perfect, but he manages to perform at his best when the Hawks need him the most, and bounces back from the bad performances as well or better than most goaltenders in the NHL.  In fact, his average save percentage for the playoffs ranks at .921, which is better than a number of netminders who are considered elite.

He stood on his head to ensure his team had every chance to win in tight games, stole wins in multiple overtime games, stone walled the scoring elite on the breakaway, and helped them hang on when he was under siege with a flurry of shots down to the wire.  When the stop looked impossible, he stopped it, whether it was five-hole, glove side or a squeeze at the post. It was rare that Crawford wasn’t under heavy fire, and in all fairness, Keith was on the ice to help him for an astounding number of minutes. However, Crawford was also backing an aged veteran in Kimmo Timonen and an untested young Swede in David Rundblad, who were not quite as helpful as his trusted core of defenders in Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, and Johnny Oduya.

In addition, a catastrophic injury to veteran Michal Rozsival in the second round, and the fact that Oduya was battling injuries and had perhaps been showing some signs of wear from many deep playoff runs were nowhere near as effective as they had been in years past.  In fact, there was some very real truth to the idea that the defense was not the stalwart that it had been in 2013.

The deep runs year after year, and the Olympics, they were all wearing on the team and the defense as a whole as nearly every one of them had participated at some point. In fact, you can add to that the All-Star game where the Hawks were once again well represented, too. Crawford still tied with Price for the Jennings Trophy (for the fewest goals allowed). It was his second time winning the award (2013).

The Changing of the Guard

For the Blackhawks, every season has been a veritable changing of the guard. Of course, there has been a core group of players with Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Seabrook, Keith, and Hjalmarsson, in front of him. However, the rest of the parts have been a sea of change as the role players have come and gone.

This season was particularly difficult, as are most seasons after a Cup win.  The Hawks are almost always up against the cap ceiling, and this summer there were some heavy casualties.  First came the departure of Brandon Saad, a shock for the fans, players and coaching staff as he was considered to be a piece of the big picture going forward. Untouchable was a term that many would have applied.

Then came the expected departure of Sharp as he was traded away to the Dallas Stars along with his hefty cap hit though his presence and his offensive output were sure to be missed.  The next blow came as Oduya defected to Dallas as well, another cap casualty as Marcus Kruger was patiently waiting and it had become abundantly clear that there was only enough money for one of them.

Kruger was the young fourth line anchor and penalty kill specialist while Oduya became expendable as part of the return on the Sharp trade was another blue liner, Trevor Daley. However, as there are subtractions, there are always additions to follow.  This season, the additions had a different feel to them.

Artemi Panarin was a phenom coming off a championship season with SKA St. Petersburg. Artem Anisimov was Stan Bowman’s missing link, the center that would fill a hole the Hawks had struggled to fill year after year. In fact, he was a player Bowman had attempted to lift off the New York Rangers before he ultimately got his man in the trade that was necessitated by Saad’s out pricing the market in Chicago.  Anisimov was essentially handpicked as the long term solution for Kane’s line. Marko Dano was also a part of that trade and carried potential that is quite similar to what Saad coould offer, though a few years younger and subsequently just a bit behind in his development; However, it is a fit the Hawks clearly believe Dano will grow into.

No Vezina, Crow Don’t Care

So, how does all of this change effect Crawford? Simply put, the team has some inevitable growing pains to get through, and Crawford has had to step up and fill the gaps in order to keep them in the hunt for the Playoffs.  That is where this team flourishes.  Like Crawford, the regular season accolades are a nice perk, but this team doesn’t need a President’s Trophy to know its worth anymore than Crawford needs the Vezina Trophy.

This season, Crawford has already recorded four shut outs (good enough for first in the NHL). The last of which were back-to-back in his last two starts (including Sunday’s 4-0 rout of the Vancouver Canucks), with the others coming against their toughest rivals from last seasons playoffs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Anaheim Ducks. Both teams have struggled to find their own way after deep playoff runs, but for Chicago that has become old hat. The regular season has started slow, but the Hawks know how to wind it up in the late innings so to speak.

This is a team built for playoff success, piling on wins is simply not a necessity for them. They are completely confident in their ability to come together as a team come playoff time; The regular season is simply the springboard to get them there, whether they come in on top or sneak in as a wild card. Crawford is a big part of how they accomplish that. Night after night, he strings together highlight-reel worthy stops. He holds the team within striking distance, and though he may falter from time to time, his will and ability to dust off and move forward is quite remarkable.

In fact, while most will look at the first round playoff performance as a nightmare, including Crawford, it may just be the best example of who he is.  The Crow rises no matter how hard he falls. Many netminders would stew on the bench after giving up his starting job in a pivotal playoff series, and at times, Crawford could be seen looking contemplative. Though anyone who knew Crawford understood that while he may have been down, he was never out. Even the Crow knew his chance was going to come, and he would be ready.

Sure enough, as the Hawks returned to the scene of the crime, Crawford was called upon in much the same manner as Darling had been called at the start of the series. Crow’s finish was just as spectacular as he helped the Hawks close out the series. From that point on, the Crow was flying high.

In the second series, Crawford could have had doubts, but if he did he had no intention of showing them as he went up against the hottest goalie in the NHL, Devan Dubnyk (another Vezina candidate).

Crawford shut the Wild out twice and looked otherworldly as Dubnyk fell flat. Crawford strung together a solid postseason last year, including a three-overtime stunner against the Ducks. He also held the league’s most potent offense in the Lightning to a point or less in four of six games, even pitching a shutout to close the series and help the Hawks raise the Cup on home ice in front of their fans. Crawford finished the playoffs with a .924 save percentage while Dubnyk finished with a .908, and Price a .920.

Sadly, for Crawford, the playoff numbers have no bearing on the Vezina as it is a regular season award.  However, you won’t find Corey Crawford lamenting his lack of respect when it comes time to dole out awards most seasons, because he is simply too busy planning out his day with the Cup.

In Crow’s world, that is the only trophy that matters.