Why did the Blackhawks choose Corey Crawford over Scott Darling?

This was one area where the Hawks could’ve made bigger changes.

The Chicago Blackhawks pulled the trigger on their inevitable goalie shakeup Friday by trading Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes. The team knew it couldn’t keep both Darling and Corey Crawford next season given its salary cap situation, and didn’t waste any time recouping a third-round pick for someone who can hit free agency on July 1.

It’s a relatively small move in a vacuum, trading a backup goalie for a mid-round pick. But for the Blackhawks, it’s a major signal of where this summer might go by removing one of the biggest options off the table. With Darling out of the picture, it’s pretty much impossible to see Crawford getting moved as well.

This is significant because Crawford is one of the few highly paid players who could actually be moved without his approval. The veteran goalie has a no-movement clause like many of his teammates, but it has a partial no-trade clause attached to it. Essentially, Crawford gets the same rights to block waivers and AHL demotions like other players with NMCs, but he doesn’t have the ability to block trades to all 30 teams.

The Blackhawks could’ve tried to re-sign Darling at a lower cap hit and trade Crawford to wherever. Assuming Darling would sign for somewhere around or below $4 million, you’d be getting at least $2 million in cap savings. That’s not insignificant to a team that finished the 2016-17 season with less than $11,000 in cap space, and has an overage over $3.5 million for the upcoming season.

But now that option is effectively off the table because Darling’s rights are held by Carolina. By trading the backup, the Hawks have signaled that the status quo is likely with Crawford saying around. They have nobody behind him but journeyman Jeff Glass and a bunch of fringe prospects (Wouter Peeters where you at?!), so it appears they decided Crawford is still their best option.

What went into that decision?

All of that naturally begs the question of how the Blackhawks ultimately got to this point. Did they approach the respective camps for Darling and Crawford to see (a) what Darling’s asking price would be to re-sign as starter and (b) how willing Crawford would be to waive his no-trade clause if necessary for a trade.

Based on what’s happened, you have to figure that somewhere during those discussions, GM Stan Bowman didn’t hear what he wanted. Maybe Darling said he wouldn’t take a discount and wanted more than $4 million annually, cutting into the potential savings of moving Crawford. Maybe Crawford’s camp indicated that it would refuse to accept any trade, forcing Bowman into a challenging situation where he’d be trying to move the expensive goalie with only a few possible suitors.

With the Hawks only able to protect one goalie for the expansion draft, they would’ve needed to sort all this out by mid-June. Crawford needs to be automatically protected because of his NMC, so if they wanted Darling instead, they would’ve needed to move Crawford and get Darling signed before then so the latter could be protected.

In that context, with the need to maintain some semblance of stability in goal given the lack of alternatives in the organization, it’s not hard to see why they’d opt to stick with Crawford. He’s been one of the most reliable year-to-year goaltenders in the NHL since 2011, and they’d need to see meaningful savings in order to take the risk of turning over the net to Darling and an unspecified backup. Toss in the fact that the team still recouped a third-round pick for Darling, and there are a lot of reasons why moving Crawford becomes complicated.

So what now?

The problem with retaining Crawford is that somebody needs to go to clear cap space. He’s one of the few big money players on the roster without a complete no-trade clause along with Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Marcus Kruger.

Among those four, Kruger is clearly the most likely to go given he’s expendable as a bottom-six center. The problem is that his cap hit of $3.08 million wouldn’t exactly provide huge savings, and there’s a good chance that the team will need to make additional moves if it wants any semblance of flexibility.

If you scratch Crawford off the list, that opens up the possibility of a major trade involving Panarin or Hjalmarsson, even though those two players are quite good and worth what they’re paid. The problem is that the Blackhawks over-allocated resources in other spots, and that means they can’t afford to pay everyone what they’re worth up and down the roster. Entry-level contracts are part of how they’ll get around the issue, but clearing salary before next season seems likely, too.

Crawford was one possibility there, but it seems increasingly unlikely that happens now. If it did, you’d think the next move would be to re-sign Darling as his replacement,  so it’s hard to see Step 1 without Step 2 being possible anymore.

More changes will need to come, though, even if the Blackhawks made the understandable choice here. Crawford was far from the team’s biggest issue the past couple years.