Blackhawks create room for free agent goalie signing by trading J-F Berube to Blue Jackets

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks create room for free agent goalie signing by trading J-F Berube to Blue Jackets

The Blackhawks will be in the market for a backup goaltender when free agency opens on Sunday, and to help create room for a signing, they sent J-F Berube to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for forward Jordan Schroeder.

The number of goalies under contract in Chicago has been reduced to four following the trade: Corey Crawford, Collin Delia, Anton Forsberg and Kevin Lankinen.

The move comes not long after it was reported by Jay Zawaski of 670 The Score that the Blackhawks are closing in on a verbal agreement with veteran netminder Cam Ward; dealing Berube only reaffirms that.

Berube, 26, was given a strong look last season as the potential No. 2 going forward, but couldn't take advantage of that opportunity after compiling a 3-6-1 record with a 3.78 goals against average and .894 save percentage in 13 appearances.

Schroeder is a former first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in 2009 by the Vancouver Canucks, but hasn't been able to put it all together in the NHL.

He spent the majority of last season with the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League, where he accumulated 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) in 48 games. With the Blue Jackets, he had two points (one goal, one assists) in 21 games.

The 27-year-old center has one year left on a two-year deal that carries a $650,000 cap hit, and is likely to play with the Rockford IceHogs next season.

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.

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube impressed in his first Blackhawks start

Jean-Francois Berube got his first start of the season on Friday night, and it couldn't have gone any better.

The 26-year-old goaltender stopped 42 of 43 shots, a career-high for him in saves, in the Blackhawks' 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks at the United Center.

Since Corey Crawford went down with a head injury last December, the Blackhawks have been searching for consistency in the crease. 

The pair of Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass — who was assigned to Rockford on Feb. 15 and replaced with Berube — have had their ups and downs since then. With the Blackhawks out of the playoff picture, Berube had an opportunity showcase his skills, and he didn't disappoint.

"We were very happy with him," said coach Joel Quenneville. "I thought he did a great job. He was comfortable. I thought he was very patient in his net. Absorbing a lot of pucks with people in front of him was good. Closed some gaps and got … of the top of the paint. Rebound control was effective. Nice response from a long absence."

Berube's last — and only — appearance with the Blackhawks prior to Friday's game came on Dec. 6, relieving Forsberg in a game against the Washington Capitals. He recorded 12 saves of 14 shots. 

When Crawford got injured, Berube was the primary candidate to become the team's backup goaltender. The only problem? He was injured too, so the Blackhawks promoted Glass.

"I didn't want to sit and think about it," Berube said of his injury. "At the same time, it was great for Glasser. He was one of those guys that probably deserved it earlier in his career and he finally got his chance. Sometimes you need a guy to go down to have your chance. So I was mostly happy for him.

On Friday night, he got his chance.

"You always want to have a good impression for your first game," Berube said. "I know what I can do at this level, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity to play and showing people what I can do."

Celebrating his 22nd birthday, Nick Schmaltz also had a goal and an assist. Artem Anisimov scored an empty-netter.

"It's a lot more fun coming to the rink when you're winning, enjoying each other, playing well as a team," Schmaltz said of the Blackhawks' win, which have now won three of their last four games. "Hopefully we can keep that good energy and bring it to the rink every day, and build off of that.

"You never know where this team can go, a lot of great players, lots of guys that have had a lot of success. Hopefully we can continue to put together solid efforts."