Blackhawks

After slow start, Corey Crawford finding his rhythm for Blackhawks

After slow start, Corey Crawford finding his rhythm for Blackhawks

Corey Crawford is seeing everything pretty clearly right now.

Just in case you weren’t sure how clearly, his numbers tell the tale: of the last 129 shots he’s faced, he’s allowed just five goals. In eight games this season, he’s allowed just four even-strength goals. And as the Blackhawks continue their ups and downs with their overall game, Crawford has been locked into this.

Crawford recorded his fourth victory of the season on Tuesday night, stopping 33 of 34 shots in the Blackhawks’ 5-1 decision over the Calgary Flames. If you didn’t see the game, the score could be misleading. The Blackhawks had a tough go of it for two-plus periods before scoring four times over the final 12 minutes, 16 seconds of the game.

“I’m feeling better and better every game,” Crawford said Tuesday night. “I’m feeling quicker out there reading plays. That’s a big part of it too, is to be able to read a play and get out and be aggressive when it’s time. Just everything is coming together each game; just went out there and battled.”

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Crawford was much like the rest of the Blackhawks at the start of the season: slow out of the gate, struggling to get his game where he wanted it to be. The World Cup of Hockey was a great experience for Crawford, who played one-and-a-half games for Team Canada. But he didn’t get a lot of work, even in practices. And while he got a lot more reps and shots when he returned to Chicago, the results weren’t there early.

“I just didn’t feel great at the start,” he said.

It didn’t help that the Blackhawks’ penalty kill was struggling. Yes, the goaltender is supposed to be the team’s best penalty killer, but players weren’t hanging all the issues on Crawford.

“He may have been a little frustrated when he wasn’t getting the wins. At the same time, he was playing well,” Patrick Kane said. “You could say none of the goals were really his fault, especially with the slump we went through with the penalty kill. He’s always solid, always big in net.”

The Blackhawks are starting to find their way again, be it with their lines, their puck possession or their penalty kill. Crawford righted his game a little sooner. He’s clearly been critical to the Blackhawks’ recent success.

“He’s a world class goalie, and to see what he’s been able to do over the last bunch of years, it’s fun playing in front of him,” Brent Seabrook said. “He always gives us a chance to win.”

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.