It’s been almost exactly a year to the day since the Chicago Blackhawks lost Corey Crawford for nearly a full 10 months — and in the world’s darkest timeline, it’s very likely they’ve lost him again for the long run.
Crawford was taken out of Chicago’s game Sunday night against the San Jose Sharks after just 18:30 minutes of ice time, following a collision that resulted in yet another confirmed concussion.
The team was vague with their diagnosis last time around, leaving it as “upper body” for the entirety of Crawford’s absence and only confirming the concussion when he was set to return to the ice. This time around, the injury was impossible to hide — and the team didn’t even bother. After the two-time Stanley Cup champion took a moment to get up and took even longer to get off the ice, his failure to return meant that trying to dance around the injury was a laughable prospect.
Every concussion is different, but it’s hard to look at this one for Crawford as anything but a long-term setback at the most optimistic. The veteran needed a 10-month recovery from his concussion just one year prior to this one, and Sunday night’s injury looked particularly nasty. Short of a miracle, it’s reasonable to start considering how the rest of the season will play out without him taking the ice for another game.
It didn’t come cheap, but the team did attempt to address their need for another veteran in the crease with the free-agent signing of Cam Ward in July. He’s inked to a one-year deal worth $3 million with a no-movement clause, meaning he’s here for the rest of the season no matter what.
His .883 save percentage in all situations this season is the fifth-worst in the league among goaltenders with at least eight games played, though, besting only two Flyers goaltenders, Antti Niemi, and the horrendously struggling Cory Schneider in New Jersey. He may be a band-aid, but he’s certainly not the answer the team needs for the next 47 games of the season.
Last season, when the Blackhawks hit this point, it took less than two months for the wheels to completely fall off. The team had banked on Crawford carrying the team while fresh-faced backup Anton Forsberg was slowly acclimated to the NHL level, so he struggled when immediately tossed into the deep end to serve as starter in Crawford’s absence. His only backup options at the time weren’t much better, either; JF Berube was coming off two seasons of uncertainty in a tough three-goaltender tandem with the Islanders, Jeff Glass was a 32-year-old veteran without any NHL experience, and Collin Delia was an undrafted free agent rookie still getting his skates wet in the minors.
This year, Ward is a clear statistical step backwards from the team’s option in Forsberg last year. There’s a lot more to work with once you get past him in the depth chart, though — so while it’s clearly a situation no one wants to discuss, the team could have a more salvageable situation now than when they reached this point last year.
The first call-up
In Chicago, the goaltending has been treading water all season — but at the AHL level, the Rockford IceHogs have been sitting quite pretty.
Kevin Lankinen started off strong before getting sent to the ECHL to make room for Forsberg, but he’s unlikely to see NHL time barring an utter disaster.
The other two goaltenders on the roster, though, have both been excellent — and both may likely see NHL action before all is said and done.
The easy first call-up is Delia.
In his Twitter bio, the 24-year-old Rancho Cucamonga, California native boasts a play on his name with the hashtag #itsthebigdeal. Right before it, though, reads a simple quip, which says as much about his personality as anything.
“Puck gonna come to you anyway.”
Laid-back and introspective, Delia went undrafted out of Merrimack before getting noticed by the Blackhawks and signed to an entry-level deal three seasons into his NCAA career.
The start of the 2017-18 campaign could have quickly burned him out. After signing more goaltenders than they needed, the Blackhawks found themselves sending Berube to the AHL, where he split the net with Glass while Delia was sent to the ECHL. A lack of roster space there and a preference to play the team’s official starter left Delia without a start for nearly a full month at any level, and the sporadic play left him with a small sample size that tanked his stats.
Crawford’s injury in December came alongside an injury to Berube in Rockford, though, which left Delia to man the crease in the AHL after his near-month away from the starter’s net. He handled the abrupt change in situation like a champ, even incorporating some major technical changes at the hands of development coach Peter Aubry to help guide the IceHogs to a bounce-back season following a tough 25-win campaign.
Delia is well on his way to getting noticed as goaltender of the year in the AHL, so a call-up would obviously derail a fun minor league story. But he makes sense as the team’s first call-up for a number of reasons — starting with his waiver eligibility. He’s waiver-exempt for another two seasons or 58 NHL games played, neither of which he’d be able to exceed this year even if he rode the team the rest of the way.
Combined with a .933 save percentage in all situations through 17 AHL games played this year, including a near-shutout Sunday night against Grand Rapids (spoiled with just nine seconds left in the game), he’s an easy candidate to try and get the team back on track up through the Christmas break.
At best, Delia shows the hand positioning, depth management, and angles he’s fine-tuned with Aubry have given him the edge he needs to survive at the NHL level, and he finishes out the season in Chicago. Even if he does that, he’d still be eligible to start next season in Rockford if need be, although it’s growing tougher to conjure a scenario in which that happens.
At worst, though, he gets the team through a handful of games before they have to play their trump card and make a second call-up. In that case, he’s still able to easily head back down to the AHL, where he’s been thriving and may very well see the club through their postseason run, and the team won’t have potentially exposed themselves to a situation where they have to give up the only relief he could have when things go wrong.
Which, of course, leads to what should happen with Forsberg.
The second call-up
Forsberg shouldered a massive amount of blame last season, following his failure to keep the Blackhawks anywhere close to the wild card chase as Crawford’s long-term relief.
The 26-year-old native of Harnosand, Sweden went from a season in which he should have put up nowhere north of 20 starts to a season in which he limped to a 35-game finish, posting a .908 save percentage in all situations and failing to get even a single feel-good shutout in the process. He won just 10 of his games, and by the end of the season was shut down with an injury of his own.
As has proven evident by the performances in Chicago this year, though, it was a bit unfair to pin quite so much of the blame on a first-year NHL pro behind the defense he dealt with. Crawford’s .902 save percentage through 23 games this year certainly gives Forsberg a bit of leeway, and Ward has been far from competent as the team flounders as much in front of him as they did the backup last year.
After failing to give him even a single appearance to kick off the season, the Blackhawks were able to sneak their third goaltender down to the AHL through waivers just a few weeks into the season, and he’s remained there ever since.
It’s been a good situation for him, though. He had one miserable start — a seven-goal showing against the Chicago Wolves that saw him yanked 40 minutes in — but apart from that one appearance, he hasn’t posted below a .905 in any of his other eight games. And with five of his nine games boasting a .939 save percentage or better, he’s been absolutely excellent by and large.
The balancing act for Rockford has seen both Delia and Forsberg rested on back-to-backs and sat after hot performances to avoid one getting ignored for too long, but it’s clearly been a good situation. On Saturday night, Forsberg managed to stop all but three of the 52 shots he faced — and if he’s been that confident in Rockford, it’s unlikely he’s completely lost his touch at the NHL level, too.
Unlike Delia, Forsberg isn’t waiver-exempt, so sending him up first leaves the team in a tough position if he starts to struggle or they make a trade for someone else. He’s unlikely to clear waivers again given the number of goaltending injuries around the league, and that would leave the team without relief in Rockford if they do need to turn to Delia in the NHL at any point.
Cat Silverman is a contributor for SB Nation and The Athletic Arizona. A goaltender and journalist, she has coached with the Arizona Coyotes Department of Hockey Development and USA Hockey, and is a regular contributor at InGoal Magazine. Her work has also been featured at NHL.com and Yahoo Sports. Follow her on Twitter at @catmsilverman.