With the first game of the 2021-22 NHL season just three days away, 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.
Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks had a trio of contenders for the No. 1 goaltender spot vacated by Corey Crawford after the 2019-20 season. Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban all vied for that role, with Lankinen jumping out to an early lead that he never relinquished, remaining atop the depth chart for the pandemic-abbreviated season.
Thanks to an offseason trade, though, there is no such competition happening for the starter’s net this season, although some intrigue remains with the backup spot.
After joining the Blackhawks in a late July trade from the Vegas Golden Knights, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner slotted in immediately as Chicago’s starting goalie for the ‘21-22 season.
Fleury isn’t getting any younger, as he’ll turn 37 in late November, but he’s also coming off of perhaps his best season in the league. He won the Vezina and Jennings trophies while posting a .928 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average — both the best season-long marks of his career. His 20.1 goals saved above average trailed only the ‘17-18 season total of 20.8.
Through his brief appearances in the preseason, Fleury showed he still has the trademark athleticism that’s carried him throughout his career:
FLOWER POWER. pic.twitter.com/vOaOQTxMMY— NHL (@NHL) October 5, 2021
The most interesting part of the equation will be seeing how many games Fleury plays this season, as any pro athlete in their mid-30s would probably benefit from a slightly lighter workload. Fleury started 36 of Vegas’ 56-game schedule last season, which projects to roughly 53 games over an 82-game schedule. Chicago doesn’t have the benefit of a second goalie as good as Robin Lehner, but the aforementioned Lankinen/Delia/Subban trio should be able to spell Fleury enough to his legs fresh for the entire season.
In his first NHL season, Lankinen started in 37 games with a 17-14-5 record, .909 SV% and 3.01 GAA. Decent enough numbers considering the young, inexperienced defense he was playing behind, but perhaps not quite strong enough of a performance to bestow the No. 1 goalie spot for the long term — hence the offseason acquisition of Fleury.
Still, there’s plenty to like about the 26-year-old Lankinen, who could still improve his game enough to be the future starting goaltender in Chicago. A season of apprenticeship behind a future Hall-of-Famer in Fleury may help Lankinen find that extra gear to make him worthy of the starting spot. His in-season development will be key for the bigger picture in Chicago, with Fleury in the final year of his current contract.
Collin Delia / Malcolm Subban
These two goalies are lumped together here because they’re in a similar boat with the question of: what are the Blackhawks going to do with them?
Both goalies are 27 years old and, while not ancient by any means, this is around the time when pro goalies either emerge as starters or begin the nomadic life that usually accompanies existence as an NHL backup. It certainly appears that Lankinen is locked in to the No. 2 goalie spot in Chicago, though, which leaves no room for either Delia or Subban at the NHL level.
Delia and Subban are not exempt from waivers, either, which means an AHL assignment would only come after leaving each goalie available to be claimed off waivers by any of the other 31 teams in the NHL. Letting either goalie walk for nothing feels like a missed opportunity, but it also feels like the Blackhawks would’ve traded either one of these two if the right deal had emerged after Fleury was acquired.
Should one or both end up with the IceHogs, though, there’s another issue: youngster Arvid Soderblom is likely to receive an extended look after signing with the team in May and, at 21 years old, his long-term window remains much more open.
More clarity on the futures of Delia and Subban should arrive this week as the Blackhawks organize their rosters for the ‘21-22 season.
[UPDATE] That future could involve a trip out of town in the next 24 hours:
Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban have been placed on waivers.— Scott Powers (@ByScottPowers) October 10, 2021