Despite the fact that it came on the heels of a second NHL lockout in less than a decade, fans and players likely found the second Stanley Cup win for the Chicago Blackhawks in four seasons much more enjoyable than the first time around. The reason is simple: they'll all be back.
Yes, after selling off a large majority of their team in the two summers that followed after 2010, the Blackhawks will return virtually the entire roster than helped them clinch their fifth Stanley Cup title in franchise history this past season. However, there's still plenty to be aware of on the horizon.
We know about the extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane that will become necessary next July. Brandon Saad could use one too, coming off of his entry-level deal. We know about Andrew Shaw becoming a restricted free agent next summer. The most pressing matter for the Blackhawks' brass, however, is the status of Corey Crawford, set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The situation surrounding Crawford is a tricky one. Coming off of a mighty disappointing 2011-12 season, Crawford flashed brilliance throughout much of 2013. He teamed up with Ray Emery to form a Jennings Trophy-winning goaltending duo. Had it not been for Crawford, there's likely no Cup either.
Crawford kept the Blackhawks in games, both in the regular season and playoffs, that they had no business being in. Even in the clinching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, if Crawford doesn't stand on his head in that first period and keep the Hawks within one, they're going back to Chicago for Game 7 and who knows what could have happened there.
His final numbers on the regular season included a dazzling 1.94 goals against average and .926 save percentage, before going for a 1.84 GAA and a .932 save percentage. You could see his confidence, which dwindled in the previous season, build up as the season wore on.
Now Crawford is a man flying high. Set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Crawford is not only entering a contract year, but a season in which he has an opportunity to grab a roster spot for Team Canada at the Olympics in February. Quite a contrast from where he was a year ago.
In dealing with Crawford, the Blackhawks face a tricky situation. You'd obviously like to make him the long term solution in net. However, even when the salary cap does eventually go back up, will the Blackhawks really be in a position to afford him? Will they be in a position where they want to pay him? After all, they signed Antti Raanta.
While the ideal situation would be to lock Crawford up now, he's also only coming off of that one season of being elite. You need more consistency out of someone before you're going to throw a deal with a $6 million cap hit at him. At the same time, if Crawford reaches free agency, someone (Jay Feaster) will throw an ungodly amount of money at him and likely price him out of the range that Stan Bowman is willing to pay.
Of course, a strong season from Crawford and a new contract for him after we know what the salary cap is rising to and before free agency opens up would be the ideal situation. But the NHL is a business, and not everything is going to be ideal. This situation has a happy ending. Whether or not we'll actually see that with the Blackhawks remains to be seen.