By Brad Gardner
The Blackhawks’ goaltending position underwent more turnover last season, as another prospect overtook a veteran to earn a bulk of the load down the stretch. Longtime Chicago goalie prospect Corey Crawford finally had his chance with the big club last season and did not falter, appearing in 57 regular season games for the ‘Hawks and starting all seven playoff games against the Canucks.
Crawford’s surge came just one season after Finnish prospect Antti Niemi took the reigns from Cristobal Huet and eventually led the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. Even dating back to the 2008-09 season, veteran Nikolai Khabibulin was halfway out the door at the start of the season but earned a bulk of starts down the stretch and in the playoffs for the ‘Hawks. It has practically been a revolving door in Chicago’s net and that trend continued heading into the 2010-11 season.
During the summer of 2010, with the salary cap looming large over all of GM Stan Bowman’s maneuvers, the organization opted to walk away from Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration award months just after the goalie raised the Stanley Cup. With Niemi out of the picture, Bowman turned to former Dallas Stars’ stalwart Marty Turco. Even at 35 years old by the start of the season, Turco was expected to carry the load as Crawford eased into his first full season of NHL duty.
The veteran Turco had a rough start to the season (along with just about every other member of the team) and the opportunity was there for Crawford to take control. Compared to Turco’s aggressive, sometimes erratic, style of play, Crawford brought a calm presence and more consistency to the crease. From mid-November into December, Crawford earned seven consecutive victories, giving up just 15 goals over that stretch. Turco, on the other hand, went 1-3 during that same stretch with one shutout but 14 goals against in the other three starts. With the balance of power shifted in net, Turco appeared in only 10 more games from mid-December through the end of the season.
Crawford, to his credit, didn’t let up or give Turco any opportunity to take the job back. Appearing in 57 games, Crawford finished the regular season with a 2.30 goals against average and .917 save percentage. He led all rookie goaltenders with 55 starts, 33 wins, and tied Washington’s Michal Neuvirth for the rookie lead with four shutouts. Though he was thought to be a Calder nominee, particularly in Chicago where he kept the defending champs in the playoff hunt, he was left off of the list of Calder finalists. Crawford was still named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team for his strong campaign.
The Montreal-native continued to backstop the Blackhawks in the playoffs, providing solid play even in the early games in which the Canucks skated circles around the Chicago players. Crawford’s numbers improved to a 2.21 goals against average and .927 save percentage in his seven playoff starts, but the 3-4 record tells the story of how that series ended. Still, it was an excellent postseason debut for the rookie goaltender, as he came through with over 30 saves in four of the games, including a 36-save shutout in a must-win game five, 32 saves in the overtime victory in game six, and 36 saves in game 7 before Alexandre Burrows scored the Canucks’ second and deciding goal in overtime.
Following the season, Crawford signed a 3-year extension with the Blackhawks that comes with a manageable $2.66 million dollar cap hit. The deal will pay him $3.25 million in salary this season, $2.25 in 2012-13, and $2.5 million in 2013-14, excellent amounts compared to other starters if he is able to continue his solid play and handle a bulk of the team’s workload over the length of his contract.
Given his levelheaded demeanor and excellent technique in net, there is good reason to believe Crawford can continue to find success. The Blackhawks will continue to be an offensively-oriented team, so there is less pressure on Crawford many nights to provide a stellar performance. As long as he can continue his steady, consistent play in the crease, he should provide the high-flying ‘Hawks offense with all the support it will need on most nights.
Carrying the load is not a new thing for Crawford either. Despite the “rookie” tag last year, Crawford has logged more pro games to this point in his career than most prospects. He spent the majority of five seasons in the AHL, even going back to Chicago’s previous AHL affiliate in Norfolk before playing in Rockford, and logged a total of 258 regular season and playoff games in the AHL in those five years. He earned only nine appearances at the NHL level during that time, but continued to bide his time and await his opportunity with the Blackhawks. You have to go back to his rookie season in the QMJHL in 2001-02 to find a year where he appeared in fewer than 50 total games, an amazing stretch of nine seasons in which he has been a durable and dependable starter.
Of course, now that he is the assumed starter heading into the season, it is time for Crawford to begin looking over his shoulder. If Chicago fans are to see another surprise changing of the guard in net, it will likely come from either veteran Ray Emery or prospect Alexander Salak. Emery, in Chicago’s training camp on a try-out basis, is not guaranteed a roster spot yet, but is probably the team’s best bet for the back-up job if he proves to be healthy and effective in camp. The Czech goalie Salak has one North American season under his belt with Rochester in 2009-10 and was one of the Swedish Elite League’s top goalies last season with Farjestad. For now, though, Crawford is the guy for the Blackhawks in net and should expect another heavy workload this season.