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Why the Blackhawks’ season hinges on Crawford’s concussion recovery

Blackhawks' starter Corey Crawford still isn't back to 100 percent after suffering a concussion last December, and that's cause for concern as Chicago looks to battle its way back to the post-season.

Here’s the good news for the Chicago Blackhawks: they know what has been ailing Corey Crawford. Since last December, the 33-year-old goaltender has been battling concussion symptoms. And while he hasn’t seen game action since Dec. 23, 2017, when he was yanked after little more than 13 minutes of work, Crawford has been taking the ice for pre-practice workouts with Chicago’s goaltending coach Jimmy Waite and the hope is the Blackhawks will have their No. 1 netminder back this season.

But here’s the bad news: neither the Blackhawks nor Crawford knows exactly when a return can be expected. It might be the season opener, it might not be. He could make his first appearance by mid-October, or he could still be on the shelf. There’s no timeline for recovery, and that’s incredibly worrisome for a Blackhawks group that is entering this season not just fighting to return to the post-season, but attempting to stay relevant in a division and conference that appears primed to leave them in the dust.

And that isn’t alarmist as much as it is a statement of fact. The Central Division is chock full of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. The Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators are favored to battle it out for divisional supremacy. The St. Louis Blues have greatly improved over the course of the off-season. The Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche aren’t going to be pushovers. That doesn’t leave much room for Chicago.

If last season was a window into the Blackhawks’ situation without Crawford, too, there’s reason for the concern about the coming campaign and the netminder's timeline for recovery to be that much greater. At the time he fell injured last season, Crawford was boasting a .929 save percentage, 2.27 goals-against average and had backstopped the Blackhawks to all but one of their 17 victories. While far from leading the division, Chicago was in the playoff hunt with a healthy Crawford at their disposal. Without Crawford, though, Chicago’s season ended up in shambles.

Defensively, the team finished tied for the eighth-most goals against, due in large part of the poor play of the four netminders — Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube, Jeff Glass and Collin Delia — that saw starts during Crawford’s absence. Combined, the foursome posted an unsightly .902 SP, bloated 3.25 GAA and had a record of 17-30-8, which is one more win in 55 games than Crawford led the same roster to in half as many starts. Effectively, the difference between Crawford and his counterparts was somewhere in the range of 50 goals against across two-thirds of the campaign. That could have translated into another dozen or so points for the Blackhawks, and while it might not have been enough to make the post-season, it certainly would have put Chicago on the bubble.

Of course, the Blackhawks are attempting to address the disparity between Crawford and his replacements by bringing aboard Cam Ward. Signed in the summer to a one-year, $3-million pact, the Ward acquisition seems now more than just an insurance policy. He appears to be a potential part-time starter, if not more. And though it would have been a signing worthy of some praise several seasons ago, Ward, 34, hardly seems the stalwart who can propel the Blackhawks to greater heights given his recent performances.

Across the past three seasons, Ward boasts a .907 SP and 2.61 GAA. Among netminders to have played at least 100 games over the three-year span, those totals rank 38th and 20th, respectively, out of 42 netminders. Comparatively, Crawford ranks third and 11th among the same grouping of goaltenders. Diving deeper, there’s a chasm between the two keepers in performance at even strength. Crawford is sporting a .932 SP among the 42 goaltenders with at least 4,000 minutes played at 5-on-5 over the past three seasons. That’s the third-best mark. Ward, meanwhile, ranks dead-last with a .915 SP.

It’s not as though these Blackhawks are the Blackhawks of yesteryear, either. In seasons prior, Chicago may have been able to get away with middling goaltending. Matter of fact, some would assert that’s exactly what the Blackhawks did back when Antti Niemi was the goaltender of record en route to the 2010 Stanley Cup. But no longer is the attack the NHL’s deepest — Chicago finished 21st in goals for last season — and the defense isn’t quite what it used to be when Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and the since-departed Niklas Hjalmarsson were all in their primes. There are more legitimate question marks on this season’s depth chart than in any season in recent memory, which necessitates stronger play between the pipes than what Chicago received last season.

The old standards will be in place. Patrick Kane will lead the offense, Jonathan Toews will skate top-line minutes, Artem Anisimov will center one unit and Brandon Saad will be asked to rediscover his scoring touch as a top-six winger. Relatively fresh faces such as Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat will also be given top roles with greater expectations. That still leaves a lot of holes that need plugging, however, and that goes double for the blueline, which further increases the concern about Crawford’s concussion recovery. Injuries have ensured Connor Murphy and Gustav Forsling won’t be available on opening night, meaning rookie Henri Jokiharju might get the green light as part of a defense corps that includes Keith, Seabrook, Jan Rutta, Brandon Manning and Erik Gustafsson.

And while there’s no forecasting injuries, one can’t help but wonder what fate would befall the Blackhawks should Keith or Kane end up on the sidelines for any significant period while Crawford is also out of action. They are the lynchpins of the offense and defense, respectively, and any chance Chicago has at fighting for a playoff berth would almost assuredly go up in smoke if either were to join Crawford on the injured list.

But for the time being, all focus must be on Crawford’s recovery and his return to both form and action. And while the latter most certainly can’t be sped along, Chicago must do everything in their power to provide Crawford with what he needs to return to health sooner rather than later. The Blackhawks with Crawford stand a chance, however slim, at pushing for a wild-card spot and a return to the playoffs. Without him, chances are it won’t take long for Chicago to start talking draft lottery odds.

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