Robin Lehner has solved the Hawks’ Crawford question

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

It might be time for Corey Crawford to relinquish the starting goaltending position.

That’s not to diminish all that “Crow”, as Chicagoans fondly refer to Crawford as, has done for the Chicago Blackhawks franchise. However, an unfortunate spate of injuries and inconsistencies had led to instability at the goaltending position, necessitating that general manager Stan Bowman invest valuable cap space toward signing 2018-19 Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner.

Lehner, whose struggles with mental health and addiction are well-documented, had a breakout campaign in 2018-19 after publicly confronting his demons. Then with the New York Islanders, Lehner posted a career best in goals against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%). His 2.13 GAA was good for third best in the NHL while his .930 SV% ranked second. On the other hand, Crawford’s 2.93 GAA and .908 SV% ranked 34th and 32nd, respectively, amongst goaltenders that played in a minimum of 30 games.

In other words, Lehner played at an elite level. Crawford did not. 

Unfortunately, under the ownership Rocky Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks have proven themselves to be a fiercely loyal franchise, sometimes to a fault. They’ve exhibited a propensity for rewarding players based on past merit rather than current performance, as evidenced by Brent Seabrook’s albatross of a contract. Such a marriage to bygone accomplishments is why entering the 2019-20 season, head coach Jeremy Colliton declared Crawford the starting goaltender over Lehner.

Though the regular season is still in its infant stages, it seems obvious that Crawford is no longer the same goaltender he once was. To be fair, in the past, Crawford has single handedly kept the Blackhawks afloat in games that should have been uncompetitive. Despite playing behind a skeleton of a ‘Hawks’ defense, Crow routinely stood on his head, ensuring that our proud franchise did not succumb to the limitations of a weak defense. However, those days are gone. If the Hawks wish to return to relevance during Patrick Kane’s prime, they need to learn how to look toward the future. 

In the early going, the 28-year-old Lehner has outplayed the soon to be 35-year-old Crawford. Lehner’s 2.15 GAA is good for fifth amongst goalies with at least five games played. Crawford’s 3.67 ranks 43rd. Lehner’s .935 SV% ranks second; Crawford’s .888 ranks 36th. 

Make no mistake about, Crawford is still a serviceable goaltender. His Stanley Cup experience is invaluable and insulates him from the same scrutiny other goaltenders inevitably face. However, right now Crawford is not the ‘Hawks best option. Lehner, both younger and more effective in net, is actively proving that his Vezina Trophy finalist season last year was no fluke. Considering that Lehner is only tethered to the ‘Hawks for one season, the team must reward his performance with a promotion or else risk losing him. 

Such a conundrum is not unique to Crawford and the Blackhawks. Current Ducks’ goaltender Ryan Miller was once considered the foremost goaltender in the NHL. Miller, then of the Buffalo Sabres, was championed as a Team USA hero after carrying the United States National Men’s Team to a Silver Medal finish in the 2010 Winter Olympics. However, following his Vezina Trophy season in 2009-10, Miller’s production gradually declined, necessitating an alteration to his role. Miller, now backing up Ducks’ goaltender John Gibson, has settled in nicely in a backup role, providing solid depth for the Ducks at a crucial position 

The Blackhawks have encountered the same crossroads: either stay married to the past or look forward toward the future. If they choose the latter, it will be Lehner who leads them there.