Corey Crawford

Can Blackhawks count on Corey Crawford returning to top form?

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USA TODAY

Can Blackhawks count on Corey Crawford returning to top form?

The Blackhawks have repeatedly stated that they expect Corey Crawford to be 100 percent healthy and ready to go by training camp after missing the final 47 games of this season with an upper-body injury.

That's Step 1.

Step 2 is projecting whether or not he can return to an elite level.

It's a fair question to wonder and an even greater challenge to figure out, because the Blackhawks saw down the stretch how important he is to their team.

"None of us can predict the future, so I'm not going to get into the, 'How do I know' anything," general manager Stan Bowman said. "We have expectations that he's going to be the same goalie that he's been. I think if you look back at the last probably three to four seasons, Corey's been getting better every year. You look back at where he was in 2013 and I think there's no way we win the Stanley Cup that year or in 2015 [without him]."

Crawford was 16-9-2 with a .929 save percentage in 28 appearances before going down. J-F Berube, Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and Collin Delia combined to go 17-30-8 with a .902 save percentage in Crawford's absence. The drop-off was noticeable, especially when it came to quality scoring chances allowed.

Since 2012-13, Crawford has the third-best high-danger save percentage (81.48) at 5-on-5 among goaltenders who have appeared in at least 250 games over that span, according to corsica.hockey. Only Sergei Bobrovsky (83.18) and Carey Price (82.63) are above him.

That's great company.

"Stan mentioned the importance of him and what he has been to our team and our organization," coach Joel Quenneville said. "You can just see from the way things went this year how valuable he really is. That stuff will all be discussed as we're going forward here.

"He's on the right track. He's close to being ready to go. Several more months now to prepare for the season. Knowing that ingredient to our team is certainly a big piece to our success and our team as well. But we look forward to that being in place and Crow ready to be a part of it."

Another factor to consider is that Crawford will turn 34 in the middle of next season. Clearly, he's not getting any younger. Nobody is.

But goaltenders tend to age well and recent history supports that. Look no further than some of the current active netminders.

Henrik Lundqvist, 36, had a .915 save percentage in his 13th season, which wasn't far off from his career average of .920 despite being a part of a New York Rangers team that finished with the eighth-worst record.

Pekka Rinne, 35, will likely win his first Vezina Trophy for top goaltender after posting a 42-13-4 record with a 2.31 goals against average, .927 save percentage and eight shutouts in his 12th year.

Marc-Andre Fleury is 33, but he's got lots of mileage on his body having played in more than 700 career regular-season games and 116 postseason contests and counting, yet still had a career-high .927 save percentage in his 14th season.

And then there's 39-year-old Roberto Luongo, who already announced he'll be back for a 19th season after recording a .929 save percentage, his highest since 2003-04 — albeit in only 35 games because of an injury.

Age shouldn't be a concern for Crawford, who's played in only 409 regular-season games and 87 in the playoffs. There's still a lot of gas left in his tank

But can he get back to being one of the best goalies in the league? If — and it's a big if — his health doesn't get in the way of it, there's no reason not to believe he can't.

"He just seems to keep getting better every year to where you can see his value to our team right now," Bowman said. "So I would expect his performance to be certainly where he was last year, for sure. I don't think there's any reason to doubt that. He's got a lot of confidence. That last couple of seasons he's played a bigger role on our team and we're looking for that next year. We're hopeful that's the case."

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 2017-18 season

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USA TODAY

Five takeaways from Blackhawks 2017-18 season

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks season in 2017-18 after finishing with a 33-39-10 record and 76 points:

1. Corey Crawford's injury

There are many different reasons as to why the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, none more obvious than the injury to one of the best goaltenders in the league. There's no way around it.

Crawford was 16-9-2 with a 2.27 goals against average, .929 save percentage and two shutouts before essentially being shut down for the rest of the season after Christmas. To the Blackhawks' credit, they never used that as an excuse but the numbers clearly don't lie.

Anton Forsberg, Jeff Glass and J-F Berube each held their own for a while but could never seize the opportunity down the stretch. Collin Delia looked sharp in his NHL debut, and heck, even 36-year-old Scott Foster managed to find himself between the pipes, a fitting event given how the season unfolded in goal.

Stan Bowman said Friday on NBC Sports Chicago that "we don't have any concerns" about Crawford's long-term health and "there's no reason for us not to be expecting him back," echoing team president John McDonough's comments from a few days earlier.

That's a great sign, because Crawford has masked most of the team's deficiencies since they won their last Stanley Cup in 2015.

In a way, his injury could be viewed as a silver lining because it magnified the real flaws and gave the Blackhawks an opportunity to know exactly what they need to address in the offseason while expecting their Vezina-type netminder to be 100 percent healthy and return to top form.

2. The next generation

If there's one positive to take away from the 2017-18 season, it's the emergence of the younger players like Alex DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza and Nick Schmaltz, all three of whom established important roles with the club going forward.

DeBrincat finished with a team-best 28 goals and ranked tied for second in points (52). Only Patrick Kane (76) had more points than Schmaltz (52). And Hinostroza was fifth in points-per-game (0.50).

Bowman singled out DeBrincat and Schmaltz on Friday as "the next guys we're going to really commit a lot of dollars to," reaffirming the desire to get younger and build from within. Add top prospect Dylan Sikura into the mix up front, and the Blackhawks have speed and youth sprinkled all over their roster.

This is the future and the present. The second wave of talent is here.

3. Special teams disaster

The Blackhawks usually have a decent special teams unit under Joel Quenneville. If it's not the power play, it's the penalty kill and if it's not the penalty kill, it's the power play. This season was rough in both departments.

They finished with a 16.0 percent success rate with the man advantage, which ranked 28th in the league, and a 79.2 percent success rate on the penalty kill, which ranked 20th. The former in particular is a staggering number when you look at the core group leading the charge.

Even if the Blackhawks power play was just average, their spot in the standings might look different. But it was a momentum killer all season long, and an area that needs to get better if they want to turn things around quickly.

The penalty kill is fine structurally and will probably have a bounce-back season.

As late as Dec. 14, 2017, they were ranked fifth with an 83.8 percentage — nine days before Crawford played his final game of the season. So that unraveled quickly in large part because of their goaltending. Perhaps the biggest challenge is finding someone other than Jonathan Toews to take a defensive faceoff.

It's difficult to stay above water and in the playoff race when you're special teams is dragging you down from both ends, and that's exactly what happened for the Blackhawks.

4. An inexperienced blue line

The Blackhawks gave up the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances during 5-on-5 play this season, and a lot of that had to do with inexperience on the back end.

After Duncan Keith (34) and Brent Seabrook (32), there was a significant drop-off: Before this season, Jan Rutta hadn't played in an NHL game, Erik Gustafsson had 41 games under his belt, Gustav Forsling had 38, Jordan Oesterle had 25 and Carl Dahlstrom and Blake Hillman each were among the defensive crop that made their debuts. 

It made for some heavy growing pains, ones that you hope will pay off in the long term and serve as learning lessons for next season and beyond.

Offensively, the production wasn't there, either. 

The Blackhawks had only 18 goals from their defensemen in the first 57 games, with Keith scoring only two all season long. It put a ton of pressure on the forwards to score.

That's a position that should be No. 1 on the offseason priority list, and Bowman said "it's possible" the Blackhawks will explore landing a Top 4 defenseman. But they won't mortgage the future to do it.

"The things that would factor into those decisions would be where the salary cap is at, how much room you have and probably the biggest thing is just the term," he said.

5. Patrick Sharp's farewell

When Sharp re-signed with the Blackhawks last offseason, he made it clear he wasn't simply coming back for a victory lap. He wanted to contribute to a team that had Stanley Cup aspirations.

Unfortunately for the reasons listed above, plans changed and it turned out to be exactly that.

But his send-off in his final game at United Center was a perfect way to go out given the circumstances, allowing the city of Chicago to celebrate what he did for the organization and community: Three Stanley Cups, a four-time 30-goal scorer and alternate captain.

No. 10 will forever be known as playing an integral part of putting the Blackhawks back on the map.

What should the Blackhawks do in goal next season?

What should the Blackhawks do in goal next season?

The last time the Blackhawks were in Winnipeg they exploded for three first-period goals en route to a 5-1 victory on Dec. 14.

The roles were reversed on Thursday.

It appeared the Blackhawks might be headed for another drubbing when Brandon Saad scored 11 seconds into the game and they were awarded an ensuing power play following a failed offside challenge by the home team, but the Jets killed it off then responded with five unanswered goals over the next 11:53 and didn't look back as Chicago lost 6-2.

Anton Forsberg was pulled for the sixth time in his 27th start this season after allowing three goals on six shots, while J-F Berube gave up two goals on his first five shots before stopping 27 straight. It was the 14th time the Blackhawks allowed five or more goals in a game this season, having done that only eight times last season.

Needless to say, it's been a roller coaster in goal as of late.

To make matters worse, the Blackhawks aren't as optimistic about Corey Crawford returning before the season ends and maybe that's for the better.

But there's a big question mark between the pipes when you factor in Crawford's health and the inconsistency from their backups, which has included Jeff Glass, Forsberg and Berube.

The Blackhawks weren't expecting Forsberg to be the next Scott Darling when they included him in the trade package involving Saad and Artemi Panarin this past offseason, but they were certainly hoping he would be around the league average in save percentage (.913).

Instead, it's slipped to .905, which ranks 43rd of 52 goaltenders that have started at least 20 games this season. That's also his 5-on-5 save percentage, which is 49th out of 52 among goalies with 800-plus minutes of ice time.

When it rains, it often pours with Forsberg in net and he hasn't shown signs of progression to prevent the bleeding from getting worse.

The backup goaltending position is more important than ever in this day and age, especially for the Blackhawks with Crawford likely going into next year having not faced a shot in game action in nine months.

For those reasons, it might be wise for the Blackhawks to strongly consider rolling with Berube as the No. 2 to at least start next season if an external option isn't the preferred direction.

It would allow Forsberg to fine-tune his mechanics, build his confidence and continue his overall development with the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League, where he backstopped the Lake Erie Monsters to their first ever Calder Cup championship in Columbus Blue Jackets franchise history two years ago.

Berube and Forsberg are both under contract for the Blackhawks in 2018-19, and it's no secret there's a belief within the organization that Forsberg has a higher ceiling. He just hasn't been able to reach it yet in the NHL for whatever reason.

There are 11 games left, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Berube get more than half of those.

Yes, his save percentage is one percentage point below Forsberg's at .904. But three of his eight appearances have come in relief.

In his five starts, he has a .908 percentage; in his three relief appearances, it's at .893.

Berube deserves a longer look, one that could carry weight when determining next season's backup.