When reports surfaced on social media that the Blackhawks were closing in on a deal with goaltender Robin Lehner, the immediate reaction among the Chicago fanbase was: 'Huh?!'
And then it quickly turned into: Wait, what does this mean for Corey Crawford's future with the Blackhawks?
In the short term, the addition of Lehner is mostly about the Blackhawks wanting to go into next season with a dependable 1-2 tandem between the pipes. It's been a while since they've had that, and recent history shows that easing the workload of your starting goaltender in the regular season pays dividends during the stretch run and Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It’s the most important position in the game,” GM Stan Bowman said on Monday. “Looking back on the last few years, it’s certainly been hard to weather the storm when injuries are part of the game. I think we have the best 1-2 punch in the league is the way I look at it right now. I certainly feel really comfortable going into next season, whether Corey Crawford’s in net or Robin Lehner’s in net. We've got two high-end goaltenders.”
But it's also no secret that Crawford has missed an extended period of time on two separate occasions over the last couple seasons due to concussions and he’s entering the final year of his contract that carries a cap hit of $6 million.
There’s no debating that, when healthy, Crawford is still one of the top goaltenders in the game, even as he approaches 35 years old. But the best kind of ability is availability, so can the Blackhawks trust that he'll be there when they need him the most beyond next season?
Lehner is not just some other goaltender you bring in strictly as an insurance policy. Cam Ward was an insurance policy. Lehner is a reigning Vezina Trophy finalist, somebody that registered a 2.13 goals against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts last season. If he turns in another strong season, Lehner will be looking to cash out on a long-term deal at 28 years old and entering the prime of his NHL career.
What the Blackhawks have to at least be wondering, whether they like it or not, is whether that could be in Chicago.
While the Blackhawks don't have to make a decision on Crawford's future — or Lehner's — until next summer, the 2019-20 campaign is a massive one in terms of how the goaltending situation could play out after this season. If Crawford goes a full season unscathed, is that enough for the Blackhawks to feel comfortable about signing him to an extension?
The thought of preparing for life without Crawford must undoubtedly be an uncomfortable feeling for the Blackhawks because he's a big-time goalie when healthy and probably still has a lot of hockey mileage left in him. But the Blackhawks have to start doing so not because they want to, but because they might need to.