When Corey Crawford went down with a concussion on Dec. 16, the Blackhawks found themselves in a position they hoped they’d never have to be in again. Their two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender was sidelined indefinitely as they approached the halfway mark and were still trying to discover who they were as a team under a new head coach.
Collin Delia was called up on an emergency basis to back up Cam Ward for the time being, but he did much more than that. He became a huge reason why the Blackhawks stayed afloat while Crawford recovered, and stole games that they didn’t deserve to win. His sample size as a pro began to grow and his success followed to the point where it earned him a three-year, $3 million contract extension that will keep him in Chicago until the 2021-22 campaign.
But when Crawford returned to practice in February, Delia figured he’d probably be the odd man out. And that’s OK. The way he performed throughout his 15 appearances was enough validation for him to know he can play at the NHL level, if there was any doubt. And now he wants to tweak a few things in his game that he didn’t get to work on as much in Chicago with a hectic schedule.
"Coming back here I wasn't too upset because I felt like in my game there were things that I still needed to work on," Delia told NBC Sports Chicago in a phone conversation. "I'm not a complete player yet. But it was a huge point of validation for me, just being up there and competing with those guys at the highest level. You've proven to, not only other people, but most importantly yourself that you're not that far off, you're not that far off way.
"I found my rhythm a little bit there in the beginning and middle, and then towards the end I was having a little bit more challenges and that's why I was thankful to kind of get back here and be able to revisit some things I felt that I needed to look at."
As we wrote earlier in the season, Delia was among the NHL leaders in goals saved above average at 5-on-5 through his first six starts, his 5-on-5 save percentage ranks above average at .924 and his high-danger save percentage of .846 in all situations, according to naturalstattrick.com, remains near the top. And he was facing more slot shots than any other goaltender in the league, which made it even more impressive.
But in his last three starts before getting reassigned to Rockford, Delia gave up six goals on 37 shots in Boston, three goals on 10 shots against Ottawa where he was pulled for the first time in his NHL career, and allowed four goals on 30 shots against Colorado in an important divisional game with wildcard implications. It was his first real test of adversity at the NHL level, but also a good reminder that progression isn't always going to be linear for a young goaltender, or any player for that matter.
"I learned that I have more time than I think when it comes to playing the puck," Delia said. "That was one of the biggest adjustments for me, was making good plays with the puck. I'm very capable of making good, strong plays with the puck but I think initially when I got up there I was making plays too hasty because I was like, "Oh, I just got to get rid of it fast.' But even guys took me aside later and were like, 'Hey just relax, get a good feel, you know? It's not always about making a play at 120 miles per hour that's wrong. Make it right, take another second, make the right play.' I think it was [Brent Seabrook] that actually took me aside and said that, so I was really thankful for that.
"And then also I think the mentality is another thing that he communicated to me that, even if it's a day where you're not feeling sharp mentally or physically, you have to find a way to do something productive, you have to find a way to battle through that. And that's really what it is. I think it's impossible to think that you can be sharp for however many games that you play during the course of the year cause there's always going to be something unique that's different in that scenario or that string of games, or practices, or travel, so you kind of have to learn how to park all that, all the nuance, all the stuff that enshrouds the game that really doesn't go along with playing the game. You have to be able to — not silence it, you have to acknowledge it and know it's there — but you have to channel it in a way that's going to be effective for your state of mind going forward."
The silver lining to Crawford's injury is that it allowed the Blackhawks to give Delia an extended look in Chicago. And he certainly took advantage of that opportunity, which reaffirmed the organization's decision to invest in him over the next three years.
"I think as a normal progression for a young goalie he's had some ups and downs, but he's had a lot more ups than downs," Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said. "He certainly came out of the gate flying. The thing we like about Collin is just how much he's a competitive guy and he's shown the ability to grow his game even the short time he's been a pro. He's taken some big steps in a short amount of time. Part of that is learning the NHL. You know these guys are the best players in the world. Once you're up here for five, 10, 20 games, you get scouted more. So then your job as a goalie is to step up your preparation and work on your technical part of your game. And that's what I really love about Collin, he's a student of the game. If you talk to him, he wants to get better. He's always trying to push himself to expand his game. I think the future's bright for him, so we're excited he's part of it."
Back in Rockford, Delia will be part of a playoff push with the IceHogs for the second straight year and is in a situation where every game counts from now until the end of the season. That's another reason why it was important for the Blackhawks to send him back to the AHL, because they want him getting used to playing in high-leverage situations.
While it's unlikely he'll return to the NHL this season, the important part of his development now is all about getting him ready for next season when he is expected to serve as the backup to Crawford and round out a strong 1-2 goalie tandem for the Blackhawks.
"I just want to make sure that I'm doing what's necessary, more than what's even required, just to get back there," Delia said. "You want to be an elite goalie. If you want to be an elite player, you've got to go above and beyond so to speak. So there's a little bit of, 'Yeah, I gotta do what it takes to be successful here with the goal in mind of being on the Opening Night roster next year.'"
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