After a 124-day hiatus, the Blackhawks returned to Fifth Third Arena on Monday for the first time as a group since the NHL put its 2019-20 season on pause four months ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It felt like the first day of school again as teams transitioned into Phase 3 in preparation for the Return to Play plan on Aug. 1.
The Blackhawks know they're fortunate to be one of the 24 teams included and want to take advantage of this newfound opportunity to make a potential Stanley Cup run. But they might have to do it without one of their most important players.
Corey Crawford was the only Blackhawk absent from Day 1 of training camp and was ruled “unfit to play,” according to head coach Jeremy Colliton.
“For now, he’s just unfit to play,” Colliton said. “I think the NHL has been pretty clear that’s going to be the policy going forward as far as how we’ll announce all injuries. So, that’s all I have for you.”
Now, before we go any further, it’s important to note “unfit to play” is the league-wide terminology being used to describe any medical and injury-related absences for Phases 3 and 4. In conjunction with the NHL Players' Association, the NHL announced it is prohibiting teams from disclosing injury and/or illness information out of respect for a player's right to medical privacy.
Because of this agreement, it's not fair to speculate on what might be going on. What we do know, however, is that the deadline for players to opt out of the NHL's restart was Monday at 4 p.m. CT and Crawford's name was, to our knowledge, not part of that list.
While it's unclear how long he could be sidelined for, the Blackhawks have no choice but to start preparing for life without Crawford, given the tight window. And if he's not ready to go for the qualifying round, that changes things significantly.
The Blackhawks may be the No. 12 seed in the Western Conference, but they've become a popular upset pick against the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers because of their star power and championship pedigree. They also have a two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender that can get hot at any moment and has an A-game that's as good as anyone's.
Since the calendar flipped to January, Crawford had a 10-9-1 record with a 2.33 goals-against average and .928 save percentage. From Jan. 27 and on, no goaltender had a better high-danger goals saved above average rate than Crawford’s 9.76, according to Natural Stat Trick. He was one of the top netminders going into the pause.
It's going to take a while for goaltenders across the league to get back up the game speed, for a variety of reasons, which makes every practice in training camp even more valuable. Not being available for Day 1 certainly makes that challenge tougher for Crawford, who has shown he can be difference-maker for the Blackhawks in a game and series.
For now, the Blackhawks will rotate between Collin Delia, Malcolm Subban and Matt Tomkins in the first group and make it a competition for the No. 1 job if needed. Kevin Lankinen is also part of the mix but might not be a viable option since he had shoulder surgery in March.
Those four goaltenders have a combined 76 starts, 37 wins and zero postseason minutes in their NHL careers. To put that into perspective, Crawford has 85 starts and 48 wins in the playoffs alone.
Teams are scheduled to travel to their respective hub cities on Sunday, July 26, which means the Blackhawks have fewer than two weeks to finalize their 31-man roster. The hope is for Crawford to be on it. But will he be? The Blackhawks' playoff chances depend on it.