With the first game of the 2021 NHL season just three days, it’s time to start examining the players who’ll be taking the ice for the Blackhawks this season. Up first, it’s the goaltenders.
On Saturday, the Blackhawks bid farewell to one of the best goalies in franchise history.
On Sunday, the Blackhawks continued their search for a replacement.
Entering the 2021 season, Chicago has three goalies vying for a title they’ve never owned before in their brief careers: No. 1 goalie of an NHL team.
Here’s the task facing the Blackhawks unproven goaltender trio:
According to Natural Stat Trick, during 5-on-5 play last season Chicago ranked dead last in the following categories, with the stat expressed at a rate of per 60 minutes: shots against (34.82), scoring chances against (30.22) high danger chances against (12.91) and expected goals against (2.64). Since the Blackhawks’ defense corps has not been significantly altered since last season, there’s reason to believe the Chicago net will again be under siege in 2021.
Here are the three candidates auditioning for the role of the Blackhawks final defensive barrier, presented in alphabetical order:
After joining the Blackhawks as an undrafted free agent signing in July 2017, Delia soared up the organizational depth chart and made his NHL debut eight months later following a slew of goalie injuries in Chicago. In the ‘18-19 season, Delia appeared in 16 games with a 6-4-3 record, .908 save percentage, 3.61 goals-against average and a minus-0.88 goals saved above average mark, according to Hockey Reference. With the Blackhawks goaltending situation last season more secure, Delia remained with the IceHogs the entire ‘19-20 season, posting a 16-13-1 record, 2.66 GAA and .912 SA%.
Although he spent all of last season in the AHL, Delia does have the most game time with the Blackhawks among this trio.
Unlike the other two goalies on this list, Lankinen is yet to make his NHL debut, which is why the impression here is that he’s at the bottom of the list. The Finland native starred for HIFK (10-3-2, 1.33 GAA, .940 SA%) in the Finnish Elite League’s 2017-18 season, earning a two-year deal with the Blackhawks in May 2018. In 2019, Lankinen led his native country to the gold medal in the Ice Hockey World Championships with a dazzling eight-game run: 7-1 record, 1.50 GAA, .942 SA% and two shutouts.
Lankinen was the IceHogs lone representative at the AHL All Star Game in 2020, although the rest of Lankinen’s season was cut short by shoulder surgery. All indications are that he’s back to full strength now, however. Lankinen signed a two-year contract extension in April, putting him under contract until 2022.
Subban has the most NHL experience of this group, appearing in 66 total games with a 30-23-7 overall record, 2.97 GAA and .899 SA%. His entire Blackhawks career consists of 70 seconds played against the Anaheim Ducks on March 3 while Crawford, who’d started that game, received medical attention.
He joined the Blackhawks as part of the return in the Robin Lehner trade and signed a two-year contract extension in October. There is evidence to suggest that Subban is at his best when he sees consistent playing time, which is something he hasn’t had for several years. That brings up a chicken-and-egg type of argument: are Subban’s numbers unimpressive because he hasn’t had consistent NHL playing time or has Subban not had consistent NHL playing time because his numbers are unimpressive?
So ... who’s it gonna be?
Based on practices, it appears either Delia or Subban will start in Wednesday’s season opener against the Lightning. Because Lankinen has the only waivers-exempt contract, he’ll likely hang around on the taxi squad but could be sent to Rockford should the AHL season begin in February. That does provide an interesting wrinkle to watch for the Blackhawks: Will they leave one of this trio on the taxi squad where gametime will be minimal at best or will they send that goalie to the AHL and pick up a veteran netminder to satisfy the season requirement of having three goalies between the active roster and taxi squad?
At the top of the lineup, though, there’s one key to remember this season, given the Blackhawks long-term focus: it’s probably more important to note which goaltender ends the season as the No. 1 guy than it is to note which goaltender starts the season there. That conclusion is based on comments Colliton made last Tuesday, as reported by Ben Pope of the Sun-Times:
Colliton on goalie battle: “It's hard for them to show much in practice, so that's part of why we want to scrimmage is (it'll) allow us to evaluate the goalies.”— Ben Pope (@BenPopeCST) January 5, 2021
He added that the season will be partially used to evaluate them too, though. It won’t be cemented after camp.
One week of training camp just isn’t enough to determine which goalie is best equipped to start the season as the No. 1 option. A 56-game season provides a better sample size and should give us a better idea of who’ll be Chicago’s starting goalie to open the ‘21-22 season and beyond.