The biggest culprit for the demise of the 2017-18 Chicago Blackhawks season was between the pipes. After No. 1 goaltender Corey Crawford exited the lineup around Christmas and never returned, the trio of J-F Berube, Jeff Glass and Anton Forsberg could not live up to the lofty standards set by Crawford. Chicago struggled for the rest of the season, ultimately missing the playoffs.
So what’s new? Glass and Berube are gone, while 34-year-old veteran Cam Ward was brought in during the summer from the Carolina Hurricanes in free agency. Forsberg also remains with the Hawks in a role that’s uncertain going forward. And, of course, there’s the never-ending, will he/won’t he drama surrounding Crawford that just might be reaching its conclusion.
Ward (last season w/ Carolina: 23-14-4, 2.73 GAA, .906 SA%)
Ward figures to be the starting goalie for Chicago’s season opener, with Crawford potentially returning to practice this week but not ready to return to his No. 1 spot just yet. And how much confidence Ward instills is up for debate. Before the preseason even started, there was plenty of concern about Ward’s fit in Chicago, given the steadily increasing goals-against numbers he posted during his final four seasons with the Hurricanes. And with Ward now at 34 years old, it’s hard to imagine him re-discovering the form that made him a playoff sensation during his rookie season with Carolina.
It’s only a one-year deal for Ward but it does include a no-movement clause that prevents him from being demoted to the AHL. It’s in the Blackhawks’ best interest for Ward to be a reliable contributor in net. Whether or not that interest meets reality will be under scrutiny as the season starts.
Forsberg (last season: 10-16-4, 2.97 GAA, .908 SA%)
Forsberg has a lot of the credentials for a future No. 1 NHL goalie, most notably a Calder Cup Playoff run with a sub-2.00 GAA during that postseason. But in his first consistent NHL experience, Forsberg was inconsistent, alternating between quality and subpar starts. That performance was part of the reason why the Blackhawks felt the need to sign Ward, who remains an insurance policy against the injury to Crawford.
But that leaves Forsberg in a strange position. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has said he doesn’t intend to keep three goalies on the NHL roster and Forsberg would have to clear waivers to be sent to the AHL.
Should Crawford return, are the Blackhawks really willing to lose a 25-year-old goalie who has just more than 2,200 minutes of NHL experience? A few quality starts from Forsberg early in the season could make this issue even more complicated.
Crawford (last season: 16-9-2, 2.27 GAA, .929 SA%)
We don’t need to revisit the entire Crawford saga again because it’s embedded in the nightmares of every Chicago fan. But it could, mercifully, be over, as Crawford is on the verge of re-joining the team for practices this week.
And in Crawford’s limited time last season, he was incredible, drawing early Vezina Trophy consideration. But let’s not ignore one potential development: Crawford is 33 years old and has played a plethora of hockey over the last eight seasons. There’s no guarantee that Crawford immediately returns to that level if/when he makes another start for the Blackhawks. It could take him a few weeks to find his form. It could take months. It could also never happen.
Or he could look like the Crawford of old in his first start. Like the ongoing injury issues he’s experienced in the last year, there’s only one way to find out: having him back on the ice.