One of the big stories in the NHL over the past month has been the mysterious status of Corey Crawford. The Chicago Blackhawks’ goaltender hasn’t played since a Dec. 23 loss to the New Jersey Devils and other than being placed on IR four days later with an unspecified upper-body injury, little more was known for nearly a month.
More information has started to trickle out this week, however, and it doesn’t sound good for Crawford or the Blackhawks. The goaltender is reportedly dealing with some kind of head injury and it’s possible that his season is already over.
The Blackhawks have been using the inexperienced duo of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass in his place, but that’s not necessarily a recipe for success. The longer Chicago, currently dead last in the Central Division, is without its starting goalie, the more likely a trip to the lottery becomes.
With that in mind, here’s a rundown of what we know about why Crawford is out of the lineup, when he might return, and what that means for the remainder of the Blackhawks’ season. You can check out more coverage at Second City Hockey.
What’s wrong with Crawford?
The Blackhawks have declined to offer any official information other than an “upper-body injury,” but a pair of reports in the media this week added some layers. First, the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus reported there was growing fear in the Hawks’ organization that Crawford could miss the rest of the season with “vertigo-like symptoms.”
Then a couple days later, team senior adviser Scotty Bowman told a Canadian radio show that he thought Crawford was suffering from post-concussion syndrome. The older Bowman, who is also the father of the Blackhawks’ general manager, later told reporters this wasn’t based on any inside information, but it follows with the idea that Crawford’s injury is related to his head.
I just spoke with Scotty Bowman and he said he was "guessing," not sharing inside info. "I think he got a concussion," he said. "I have no confirmation that it is."— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) January 18, 2018
Vertigo and post-concussion syndrome are different conditions, but they can share similar symptoms, so this isn’t necessarily conflicting information. It’s within the realm of possibility that Crawford’s symptoms from post-concussion syndrome include dizziness and other symptoms commonly associated with vertigo.
But we don’t seem to know much beyond the strong indication that Crawford is suffering from a head injury.
When might he come back?
The Blackhawks have consistently stuck to an “indefinite” timetable for Crawford, which isn’t very encouraging. The goaltender hasn’t been placed on long-term injured reserve yet, which suggests that the team still believes there’s a good chance he’s ready to return before the end of the regular season, but it’s unclear whether that might mean another week or mid-March.
Lazerus’ report said there was concern Crawford could miss the rest of the season, and that comes after Elliotte Friedman recently reported that “last week there was some real worry about whether or not Crawford would be able to return.”
So there’s definitely been some word getting around to reporters that Crawford may not return this season. However, the door remains firmly open, and it seems like that will be the case unless he’s finally placed on LTIR.
What are the Blackhawks’ options?
The Blackhawks were being carried by Crawford for chunks of the season, and they’re currently dead least in the Central Division in the midst of their bye week. Without him, a challenging road to the playoffs only becomes more difficult to navigate. There’s not much margin for error here.
But the Blackhawks also need to consider their future, and how to stay competitive beyond this season. The team aggressively remodeled beyond its core veterans during the 2017 offseason. It’s no longer firmly in the “win now at any cost” camp that defined its strategy for the better part of a decade.
So the front office needs to weigh all those factors in deciding what to do here. Let’s summarize the main two choices.
- Place Crawford on LTIR and use the cap exception to acquire reinforcements
- Stand pat and hope Crawford eventually returns from IR
There are some other options here, including placing Crawford on LTIR but declining to use the freed up salary pool, but for the purposes of this argument, those are really the main two options.
If the team places Crawford on LTIR, its LTIR salary pool will expand from $5.925 million (thanks to Marian Hossa and Michal Rozsival) to $11.925 million. However, the hard upper limit of $82.5 million goes into effect once the playoffs are over, so it’s not like they would necessarily be able to add eight figures in salary.
The Blackhawks can also only use that new salary pool if Crawford never returns to the active roster, so it only makes sense to do that under the assumption he’s not coming back.
We’ll likely know Crawford’s season is done if he goes on LTIR. And in that case, the Blackhawks would have ample cap flexibility to exceed the salary cap beyond their current commitments.
Who are some potential trade candidates?
Given the team’s salary cap situation and the fact that Crawford is signed at a $6 million cap hit through 2020, it’s fair to limit the Blackhawks’ potential options to rentals. It’s hard to see the team taking on the long-term contract of a goaltender knowing that Crawford will remain on the books for another two seasons. You also have to figure most teams in contention aren’t interested in trading their backups.
So here’s a list of possible options given those criteria:
- Robin Lehner, Sabres ($4 million cap hit)
- Antti Raanta, Coyotes ($1.5 million cap hit)
- Philipp Grubauer, Capitals ($1.5 million cap hit)
- Petr Mrazek, Red Wings ($4 million cap hit)
- Kari Lehtonen, Stars ($5.9 million cap hit)
There are also others such as Carter Hutton, Anton Khudobin, Aaron Dell, Jonathan Bernier, Calvin Pickard, and Cam Ward, although it seems more likely than not that those teams will prefer to hang on to their goaltending depth unless they’re given really compelling offers.
Lehner, an RFA this offseason, would be the biggest name, and would likely cost the most. Mrazek, another upcoming RFA, is young and intriguing but has struggled for the past couple seasons. Raanta is a former Blackhawk and could make sense given the other deals Chicago and Arizona have made lately.
So there are options. The big question for the Blackhawks is whether any of these guys will represent a large enough upgrade on Forsberg and Glass to justify the cost, or whether it makes more sense to simply stand pat, keep an eye on Crawford, and see what they have in their current netminders.
What should the Blackhawks do?
This is a really difficult situation for the Blackhawks because they’re already on the fringe of the playoffs. If the team was firmly atop the division, the answer would be obvious: Go get another goalie because you can’t afford to be undermanned in the playoffs.
But with the postseason an uncertainty in itself, the Blackhawks need to look in the mirror and decide whether that’s their best course. The team already has a ton of issues beyond goaltending, and if it focuses assets mainly on that one problem, it won’t address all the other things that have left the team with a 22-17-6 record.
At the same time, the core of Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Jonathan Toews is only getting older. Will the team be ready to accept that this isn’t going to be their year when the playoffs are still within striking distance?
Management needs to consider all its options. The next few games seem important to their direction. While the team might as well place Crawford on LTIR if the time comes that he’s 100 percent not coming back, there’s a real chance the Blackhawks stand pat, hope Crawford might come back for a last-gasp attempt at a playoff run this year, and focus their plans on 2018-19.