Blackhawks need to address organizational goalie depth this offseason

The Blackhawks still have their No. 1 goalie, but things get painfully thin after that.

One of the biggest challenges for any NHL team is finding stability in goal. The Chicago Blackhawks had that with Corey Crawford and Scott Darling over the past three years, which allowed them to basically ignore the position from a roster-building perspective.

But now that era is over with Darling signed to the Carolina Hurricanes, so it’s time to acknowledge how badly the Hawks need help behind Crawford.

One of the Hawks’ biggest successes under GM Stan Bowman has been uncovering Darling and Antti Raanta. Goalies tend to be some of the hardest players to project in professional hockey, but Chicago has batted 1.000 with its last two choices to back up Crawford.

However, unlike when Darling was immediately ready to step in as the No. 2 when Raanta was traded in 2015, there’s not an obvious replacement in house now. The Hawks acquired several goaltenders over the years to try to ready themselves for this moment, but none of them have panned out.

So now the problem is twofold: not only do the Blackhawks need a short-term backup to stabilize things behind Crawford, but they could really use a prime talent to potentially replace him in a few years. There had been some hope that Darling would be that, but the timelines and money didn’t come together in the right way, so now he’s a member of the Hurricanes.

But with a lack of quality goaltending talent in the organization behind Crawford, the position needs to be a priority this summer.

The current options

The Blackhawks set out this season hoping one of their several young goalies would have his breakout season. Mac Carruth was brought back after posting a .926 save percentage in his first stint with Rockford. Lars Johansson was signed from Europe to try to capture that Raanta/Darling magic. Wouter Peeters was nabbed in the third round of the 2016 draft, and KHLer Ivan Nalimov’s rights are still held by Chicago.

None of those guys played well in 2016-17. Carruth was an absolute disaster with a .879 save percentage in 24 games. Johansson was slightly better at .907 in 39 games, but that duo was bad enough it compelled Rockford to sign journeyman Jeff Glass to an amateur tryout deal midway through the season.

Glass turned out to be the best of the bunch, earning a one-year contract from the Blackhawks with a .914 save percentage in 20 games. But he’s more AHL starter than someone the team should really want getting NHL minutes.

Peeters remains the Hawks’ best hope at an NHL starter in the future given his youth (turns 19 on July 31) and size (6’4, tons of length), but he couldn’t even swing a .900 save percentage with the Jokerit U20 team this season. The hope is that Peeters will become the full-time starter for the Jokerit senior team in the KHL soon, but he’s more projection than results right now.

That’s similar to where Nalimov, whose rights are held by the Hawks indefinitely thanks to the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and KHL, has been over the past few years. The 22-year-old was traded from Admiral Vladivostok to Sibir Novosibirsk during the season, which was his third in the KHL.

Over those three seasons, Nalimov has posted a .903 save percentage. He’ll need to prove he can be a good starter in the KHL before he can get that shot in North America.

You can see why the Blackhawks need to give their goalie pipeline a little kick in the butt. Carruth and Johansson are upcoming free agents, so they may be goners. Peeters and Nalimov probably aren’t ready for North American hockey yet. And that leaves you with Glass, a 32-year-old journeyman who spent a chunk of his career playing in Russia.

So what can they do about this?

The free agents

The most obvious solution, at least to the backup goalie issue, is to sign a cheap free agent. That’s how the team found Raanta and Darling, and it’s probably how they plan to cover the minutes behind Crawford next season. (Also don’t be surprised if the team asks Crawford to play more than 58 games this time around.)

The lack of cap space removes many of the top options — Ryan Miller, Ben Bishop, Jonathan Bernier, Steve Mason, and Brian Elliott among them — but there will be goalies out there willing to sign for $1 million or less. If the goal is just to find a serviceable backup, it’s a doable quest.

Some of the most intriguing, potentially affordable options on the market include Keith Kinkaid, Chad Johnson, Darcy Kuemper, and Peter Budaj. None of those guys are exciting additions, but if you’re looking for someone who can crack a save percentage near the .913 league average, these are some of the guys capable of that.

Or maybe it’s an off-the-wall move that nobody sees coming like another Raanta or Darling. That’s part of the good news here — if there’s any position where the Hawks could miraculously find someone who is pretty good, it’s backup goalie.

Trade options

Or maybe GM Stan Bowman tries to get creative and convince another team to trade him a goaltender. The tricky part here is that you’d still need to find someone who is affordable, and if a team already has a good, affordable backup goalie, why are they going to trade him?

The obvious answer is “a damn good trade offer” but the logistics of that are easier said than done, especially when the Hawks could just try to sign a free agent without any added cost beyond the cap hit.

Still! Bowman needs to consider every path in this situation, and there are some potential trade candidates who could fit.

For example, what about Calvin Pickard of the Avalanche? Sure, Colorado still needs a backup goalie next season, but the Avalanche already have $5.9 million tied up in starter Semyon Varlamov. They also badly need to keep adding talent to their organization after a disastrous 2016-17 showed how far they are from contention. Let’s be honest — losing a good backup goalie probably won’t hurt the Avalanche’s ability to win 30 games next season.

If the Hawks offered a decent pick for Pickard, who has a $1 million cap hit and posted a .914 save percentage in 86 games over the past three seasons, wouldn’t the Avalanche consider it?

There aren’t many great options here given that teams aren’t lining up to trade effective, cheap goalies, but it’s not impossible.

The draft

To be clear, the draft won’t solve the backup goalie issue. These guys take years to develop, if they ever pan out, so whatever the Hawks do behind Crawford in 2017-18 won’t be solved by drafting someone.

But if the Blackhawks wanted to be able to solve this issue internally in the future, having more talented goalie prospects in the organization is a must. We can categorize Carruth as a bust at this point (if you can do that to a seventh-round pick), and Nalimov doesn’t seem to be trending in the right direction, either. Peeters could be the answer, but he’s still a total wild card who is years away from NHL ready.

So it’s time to get some more lottery tickets. The Blackhawks have 10 picks in the 2017 draft, including at least one pick in each round and three picks in the fifth round. They’ll have opportunities to take some shots, and nabbing a projectable teenage goalie or two should be part of the strategy.

Maybe they won’t pan out, but the Blackhawks need to inject more talent. Peeters and Nalimov are not enough for the team to hang its future beyond Crawford on them. Even if they can’t land an elite prospect like the Islanders did with Ilya Sorokin or the Capitals did with Ilya Samsonov, there are late bloomers like Crawford and Darling out there.

An ideal scenario

So if it was up to me, what would I want to see the Hawks do with this situation in the offseason?

First, I’d go after Kinkaid or Johnson to see if either one will sign for about $1 million on a one-year deal. Ideally the backup goalie issue is solved with a cheap, low-risk contract that allows the Hawks to re-evaluate their situation in the 2018 offseason. Alternatively, if they could land someone like Pickard for, say, a fourth-round pick, that’d be a solid solution to the problem, too.

It’s also time to draft another goalie. We saw last year that the Hawks view this as a priority when they went after Peeters in the third round. That was a bit of a surprise, but they clearly targeted a young goalie they liked and didn’t want to risk losing him before their next pick.

Who knows which goalie they’ll love from this draft, which is highlighted by Jake Oettinger, Keith Petruzzelli, Ian Scott, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, and Olle Eriksson Ek at the position, but there are going to be options. Part of rebuilding goalie depth this offseason means getting an immediate Darling replacement, but it should also mean restocking below that spot to make this an easier situation to handle in the future.