In the following article I’d like to take a look at the recent past, present, and future of Blackhawks goaltending. A disturbing trend has been taking pace and it is something that the Blackhawks will need to fix in the near future if they are to become a model franchise like the Red Wings.
The Chicago Blackhawks bring in a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in Nikolai Khabibulin. The lock out is over and the Blackhawks finally have a highly touted goaltender since Eddie Belfour. Chicago is ecstatic that the days of Jeff Hackett, Jocelyn Thibault, Michael Leighton, Steve Passmore, and losing are in the past. The next few seasons don’t go the way Khabibulin would like and he puts up one poor save percentage after the last. The Blackhawks don’t sniff the playoffs for the next few years and offseason changes are expected.
A new era arrives in Chicago with Rocky Wirtz and the free spending Dale Tallon. Tallon quickly locks up Cristobal Huet to be the Blackhawks starter, now and for the future. Huet is a hot goaltender and Khabibulin is put out to pasture. Huet has handled the pressure in Montreal and recently, almost all by himself, carried Washington into the playoffs. Huet eventually loses the starting job to the backup Khabibulin. Khabibulin carries the Blackhawks to the playoffs but a supposed playoff locker-room melt down ensures that Khabibulin will not be back next year.
Huet gets his second chance at being a starter in Chicago. There is no doubt that Huet is the starter and the backup job is the most interesting one to watch. Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi battle it out in pre-season with Niemi coming out on top. Interestingly enough, the biggest reason for why Niemi was picked as the backup over Crawford is because of the contract status of these two goaltenders. Niemi would have to pass through waivers to be sent down and brought up, while Crawford could do so freely without the Blackhawks putting him on waivers. Huet falters. Niemi shines. The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup with their original backup goaltender.
The Blackhawks are in salary cap trouble and big changes are made. Niemi is let go after there is no current cap space for him. Huet is loaned to Europe so the Blackhawks don’t have his $5.5Mil+ cap hit to deal with. Crawford finally gets his chance as a back up in the NHL after waiting in the AHL for five years. Marty Turco gets signed on a one year deal to be the Blackhawks starter until Crawford is ready. Turco falters. Crawford shines. The Blackhawks get to the playoffs due to their backup goaltender and Crawford plays exceptional at times in the first series.
2011 – 2012
The Blackhawks start their season by signing Crawford to an extension and anointing him their starter. Ray Emery and Alexander Salak battle it out for the backup job. Emery takes the job because the Blackhawks system is thin in goaltending and Salak would be best suited to get quality minutes in the AHL. Most know how this once again works out. Crawford has struggled while Emery has grabbed the starting job. For the fourth year in a row, the starting goaltender will now be seeing more of the bench than the ice.
2012 – ?
There are many routes that the Blackhawks could go at this point. Do you continue with Crawford and hope that he bounces back to his 2010-11 form? Do you re-sign Emery and expect him to perform two years in a row? Do you go out and trade for a goaltender such as Tim Thomas who may be available? Do you hope that a Carter Hutton or Salak can come up through the organization and once again go from backup to starter? Do you go out and sign a Tomas Vokoun, Chris Mason, or other goaltender? Is it time that Stephane Waite, the goaltending coach for the last 9 seasons, is fired? It is going to be an interesting off season for the Blackhawks and I am sure the goaltending situation is something that Stan Bowman, the Blackhawks GM, is already thinking about.
If you were in Stan Bowman’s position, what would you do?