If it had to be his last win in a Blackhawks uniform, his last chance to celebrate with Chicago, Corey Crawford couldn’t have picked a better final bow than his 48-save jewel in a Game 4 victory against the Vegas Golden Knights in August.
That night, the two-time Stanley Cup champion posted a 48-save night in the final postseason game with the Blackhawks, which included 96 playoff games during a 13-year career. Another great performances came when he faced 52 shots in an overtime loss to the Blues on April 17, 2014, .
But ultimately the Hawks lost that series to the Knights in five games and surprised some by even making it that far in the postseason.
It would be fair to wonder how far could the Hawks — who likely wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if not for the league’s COVID-19 pause — advance next season, barring some earth-moving deal after the start of free agency Friday.
It’s hard to believe the team that finished last in the Central Division, that had been six spots back in the wild card in March and is currently under pressure from a flat cap, can harbor any notions of contending for a playoff spot..
Would bringing back many of the holdovers from the team’s Cup era and plugging in a middling veteran or two only delay an inevitable rebuild?
Perhaps general manager Stan Bowman made the decision for them.
“The Blackhawks will not be resigning Corey Crawford for next season,” Bowman said in the opening minutes of a Zoom call with reporters Thursday. “I had a conversation with Corey earlier today and it was a bit of an emotional talk.”
Crawford said after the season that he wanted to stay in Chicago. He said he was less concerned about making as much money as 2019-20 1/4 u2032s $6 million cap hit — and more about starting in net and seeing the organization field a competitive roster — but reports said Crawford and the front office clashed over terms.
From the Hawks’ perspective, it probably just made Bowman’s choice easier — strategically, if not emotionally.
Around the trade deadline in February, he straddled a philosophical fence by expressing a commitment to making the roster younger, yet insisting the team could still operate as a Cup contender — all while strapped by the salary cap.
After all, it was goalie Robin Lehner’s pending free agency that precipitated his trade to Vegas for draft capital at the deadline. Contenders don’t typically do that.
Don’t underestimate Kirby Dach’s influence in all of this, either. Bowman struck gold in the 2019 draft, and the center ascended much more quickly than anyone expected in his rookie season.
“The NHL is relying more and more on young players. We’re going to embrace that moving forward,” Bowman said. “We saw some really bright spots, especially in playoffs. You saw the way that Kirby took that next step. He’s just scratching the surface.”
With the sudden development of Dach and 30-goal scorer Dominik Kubalik, the potential of Dylan Strome, Adam Boqvist and other young members on the roster, and the weight of veteran contracts on the other end of the spectrum, Bowman’s comments about of his team progressively have tilted toward youth.
You just have read between the lines and see the writing on the wall.
“I would say it’s more the direction we’re heading more than anything,” Bowman said of the decision not to re-sign Crawford. “It wasn’t like it was a contentious discussion.
“We spent a lot of time talking about what the right direction was for us moving forward, and I think, not just on our team, but you’re going to see a lot of different things in NHL this offseason, relative to other years.
“There’s an impact, league-wide and there is, maybe not every team, but a lot of teams are focusing on looking for young players who can take that next step and play a bigger role.”
Going young means giving Kevin Lankien and Collin Delia a shot.
And perhaps Malcolm Subban, too.
He was a restricted free agent the Hawks declined to qualify, but Bowman said he was interested in bringing him back, as he hopes to do with some other RFAs.
The team also spent a second-round draft pick on Boston University’s Drew Commesso Wednesday, but he’s the hope for a distant future.
Even the rosiest optimist, who might think Lankinen or Delia are ready to make the leap to the NHL, would acknowledge that they’re both far from becoming an every-day netminder, much less one you can count on in the playoffs.
Delia and Subban have 35 career NHL starts between them and Lankinen has none.
However, Bowman reflected on Crawford’s journey with the Hawks, the only organization for whom he has ever played, and felt reassured.
“I remember when I was starting as a general manager (in 2009) we had a decision to make over in Europe, who we were going to keep — whether it was going to be Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi,” Bowman said. “They were both young goaltenders and they both played well. We had a tough decision, and I think it was more of a business decision back then.”
Bowman credited Crawford as pivotal during the goalie’s two title runs, adding that he was overshadowed by brighter lights like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, but after a decade or so together the GM had another business decision to make.
“I had a good chat with Corey this morning. You know, the message to Corey and everyone else today is that we’ve decided that we’ve got some goaltenders here in Chicago that we believe in” Bowman said. “Much like Corey needed that opportunity when he came up after the 2010 season — he had been with us for a few years working his way up — we’ve got a couple young goalies in Lankinen and Delia that we haven’t given a real big opportunity to.”
And opportunity won’t be limited to goaltender.
The Hawks traded away defenseman Olli Maatta and opted against qualifying his usual ice partner, Slater Koekkoek, though it’s possible he could be signed.
Up-and-comer Ian Mitchell waits in the wings to claim a roster spot next season.
Other veterans could be on the way out, especially if the Hawks need to free up more money for Kubalik or a free-agent goaltender.
Could Brandon Saad be dangled in a trade?
Do the Hawks brass need to have a heart-to-heart with Kane, Toews and other veteran leaders about the team’s direction?
Bowman left a range of possibilities open.
“Now that we’ve made that decision (on Crawford), the way we’re going to move forward, there’ll be a lot more things we’ll talk about over the coming days, weeks, as we get into the offseason, and planning next year’s team,” Bowman said. “So, those type of things that you asked, as far as conversations, those can happen in time.
“But right now, the news we had to announce was that we’re going with a younger look with the goaltending. But there’s also movement as far as potential free-agent signings or trades. That’s all stuff that can unfold in the coming days, but there’s not as much of a timeline on that happening.
That’ll unfold as it goes.”
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