Outlook: This season proved once and for all that Corey Crawford is the most valuable player on the Chicago Blackhawks. The way that he was able to mask the problems of the declining defense can’t be overstated, considering that very few goaltenders in the league can do that. We have come a long way since the Crawford that people claimed wouldn’t make it in the 2011 season. This was supposed to be his year, the one where he finally earned the respect of voters and possibly won the Vezina Trophy. Instead, he ended up missing the Blackhawks final 48 games of the season due to a mysterious upper-body injury that was centered around the head.
Regardless of what the injury is, what matters most is if it’s still lingering. Crawford didn’t touch the ice in a game since the end of December. Even if Crawford returns to the lineup, the biggest question remains: can he return to the dominant player that he was? When he is healthy, “Crow” is among the league’s best goaltenders, averaging close to 55 starts a season. Outside of this year, there wasn’t a time when Crawford played under 30 games, excluding the lockout shortened season of 2012-13. Before he went down, the Blackhawks number one goaltender had amassed a record of 16 wins, nine losses, and two overtime losses in 27 games started.
It is safe to assume that if Crow doesn’t go down, the Blackhawks don’t miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade. However, the most important decision right now is to ensure that Crawford is healthy enough to play in the NHL. Coach Quenneville and the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks front office have claimed that they fully expect Crawford to return to the ice next season. Still, considering the mystery behind Crawford’s absence, it would be wise to invest in a quality backup goaltender, considering the goalies Chicago had this season were about as effective as a submarine screen door.
Why there is hope: Crawford might not have seen the ice or game action since late December, but he was participating in the Blackhawks off-ice workouts. As mentioned above, Coach Quenneville said that he fully expects Crow to return next season. That’s always a great sign coming back from an injury. Once Crow comes back, provided he is at his best, he automatically puts Chicago into Wild Card contention, even with all the problems the defense had.
Give him a defense that isn’t an absolute disaster, and the Blackhawks could possibly challenge the Nashville Predators for contention in the Central Division. Keep in mind that Crawford is only 33-years old and goaltenders don’t necessarily decline like other players when they go into their mid-to-late 30s. Getting him back would automatically make Chicago a better team, plus his $6 million cap hit isn’t too big either. There is hope for Chicago, but there is also some concern.
Causes for Concern: Even though members of the Blackhawks organization have stated time and time again they expect Crawford back, nothing is set in stone. The injury he sustained was centered around the head, with some reports speculating that it was vertigo-like symptoms. Others claimed that it was a concussion. While those two injuries are not the same, they do share some similar symptoms.
Either way, that’s just one of the challenges that Crawford is facing; the other is if Crawford does return, will he be his dominant self? If he doesn’t return to the Vezina-Trophy caliber player he was in years past, then the Blackhawks are in more trouble than before. Unfortunately, only time will tell if Crawford will be back and that’s the question that will plague fans until training camp opens.
Final Thoughts: This season proved once and for all that Crawford is the MVP of the Chicago Blackhawks. His presence in the net alone almost makes the team a Wild Card contender, as he recorded almost half of their wins despite appearing in a little more than a third of their games.
It’s not a stretch to assume that if Crawford doesn’t miss all that time, Chicago is back in the playoffs. However, the challenge now is going to be if Crawford is healthy enough to return to next season AND if he can return to his dominant self. Upper management can say all they want, but only time will tell.