One imagines Corey Crawford probably enjoyed the past few weeks, going about his business as outsiders debated seemingly every aspect of the Blackhawks but the situation in goal. Crawford has often been the target of criticism for his inconsistent performance and bloated contract the past few years, but more recently, it's felt like we accepted those things while directing our frustrations elsewhere.
It's not that anyone is completely confident in Crawford's ability to win a Vezina, or even come close. We've just come to terms with the kind of goaltender that Crawford is, talented but flawed. And in a league with just a handful of truly brilliant players between the pipes, that should continue to be enough for the Hawks to compete in the Western Conference. Crawford may not be the superstar goalie we want, but he's the solid goalie we need.
How good is Crawford?
You don't need to go far to figure out that Crawford measures as one of the better goaltenders in the league. Here are the top goals against averages for goalies with 50-plus appearances over the past two seasons:
Crawford looks nearly as good in save percentage, where he ranks eighth using the same criteria. In terms of the raw numbers, simply looking at how many shots Crawford allows, he's an above-average goaltender regardless of how good the defenses in front of him have been.
And yes, that's probably the easiest knock against Crawford: he's had as much support as arguably any goaltender in the league. The Blackhawks routinely deploy one of the game's best defensive units, and nobody benefits from that more than Crawford. Over the past few years, his performance has strongly trended based on the rate of shots he's seeing, and that makes perfect sense. More shots means more opportunities to make mistakes.
Crawford probably wouldn't post the same numbers playing on a different team and a different system, but most players in the NHL are a product of their environment to some degree. Only the truly great players thrive no matter what, and Crawford's good, but not quite at that level.
That doesn't mean we should brush away what Crawford has accomplished. Over the past two seasons, he's established above-average performance during the regular season and put together one stretch strong enough to win a Stanley Cup. If you gave me just those facts and then told me the guy makes $6 million a year, frankly, I wouldn't have a problem with that. And while things might look differently in 2017, I don't have a problem with Crawford right now, either.
You don't need a great goaltender
We know Crawford is good enough to win a Stanley Cup, because he's done it already. This is a changing league, though, and making assumptions is a good way to quickly look foolish. It's also important to note that a Cup-winning goalie doesn't necessarily need to be great all the time -- just for a few weeks over the course of May and June when the pressure is on. As we see in this post from The Score, many of the greatest goaltending performances in recent postseason history have been sandwiched by periods of mediocrity in the limelight.
Getting back to Crawford, that's simply the gamble you're taking with most goaltenders. Guys like Crawford and Jonathan Quick, who occasionally alternate between brief periods of brilliance and long bouts of unremarkable work, are far more common than true lockdown game-changers. And while every fan wishes their team had a Tuukka Rask or Henrik Lundqvist, we've seen a hot Crawford, a hot Quick, a hot Marc-Andre Fleury all win Cups in the past few years.
A great goaltender and a good everything else is one way to win a championship, but it's been proven that a good goaltender and a great everything else can get it done, too.
What if Crawford gets hurt?
This is where a number of contenders might have the Blackhawks beat. Crawford is certainly strong enough in goal to compete for another Cup, but what about Antti Raanta? That's a genuine question, and it's one that can't possibly be answered without seeing more of the Finnish 25-year-old.
We got a limited look at Raanta with the Blackhawks last season, and it was encouraging, but not exactly inspiring of great confidence. His .897 save percentage and 2.71 GAA were both a steep drop from Crawford, and there were some particularly ugly performances in there, like giving up four goals in 15 shots over 30 minutes to Calgary on Jan. 28.
That kind of stuff won't really cut it on a Cup contender, and it's why the team badly needs to see improvement from Raanta entering the season. Crawford is a mostly reliable option in goal, but nobody is truly safe from injury, and right now, Chicago's insurance options are Raanta and Michael Leighton. Those guys need to prove they can be enough.
Otherwise, it won't really matter how good the rest of the Blackhawks are. Teams simply can't compete in the NHL without high-level goaltending, and outside of Crawford, there's nobody in the organization who can reliably provide it. So the plan is obviously to keep the main guy healthy, but short of that, Raanta needs to take the next step.
Stats and images via Hockey-Reference