Tuesday night’s news was not kind to Chicago Blackhawks fans, with the report from Sun-Times reporter Mark Lazerus that goaltender Corey Crawford is experiencing “vertigo-like symptoms” that could have him out for the remainder of the season.
While this revelation will cast significant doubts on the potential for a playoff berth this season, it may not have much of an impact on the team’s bigger picture. The season might be classified as an overall failure if the playoffs aren’t a part of it, but it was clear from the summer that this season was about a youth movement in Chicago.
That youth movement started in the offseason.
The Brandon Saad/Artemi Panarin trade was more about acquiring a player with Saad’s all-around skills with a cost-controlled salary, but the Hawks also picked up 25-year-old goalie Anton Forsberg in the deal, who showed promise at the AHL level. As for Chicago’s other blockbuster offseason trade? Age had to be a factor when a 30-year-old Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded for a 24-year-old Connor Murphy.
In free agency, the Hawks picked up a 27-year-old Jan Rutta, a 25-year-old Jordan Oesterle, and a 23-year-old David Kampf. The Hawks also just traded a soon-to-be 27-year-old Richard Panik for 22-year-old Anthony Duclair.
Younger players from within the organization are getting their shots with the big club, too, and they’ve all been warranted opportunities. Vinnie Hinostroza is only 23 years old while skating on the Hawks’ top line for the last few weeks. Nick Schmaltz, who’ll turn 22 in February, continues to impress as Chicago’s apparent second-line center of the future. Gustav Forsling, just 21 years old, has played in 40 of the Hawks’ 45 games while averaging 19:18 of ice time each night. And don’t forget about 20-year-old rookie Alex DeBrincat, who continues to silence his critics with 14 goals (tied for second on the team) and 28 points (fourth) in his first NHL season. There’s also forward John Hayden, who is only 21 and should be back with the Blackhawks by the end of the season after being sent to the Rockford Ice Hogs to get more playing time.
Plus, the injury to Crawford, who’s 33 years old, gives the Hawks a chance to see exactly what they have in Forsberg. Because while Jeff Glass has been a nice story, a long-term option in net he is not at the age of 32.
Chicago had the oldest team in the league last season, with an average age of 29.4. The average age of the lineup that the Blackhawks sent out against the Red Wings on Sunday was 26.6.
Nothing about this situation is ideal: Corey Crawford is the Hawks’ best player and his absence leaves a crater in the lineup that likely can’t be filled in by his backups. But that gaping hole doesn’t affect the longer-term goal for this season: stocking the Hawks roster with younger talent to help offset the aging core of guys like Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Patrick Kane. The hope is that, by the 2018-19 season, the young players have developed enough to help shoulder the load that’s been carried by that core for the last decade, allowing the Hawks to get back into contention for a fourth Stanley Cup this decade.