Corey Crawford is 28 years old. He has one year at $2.66 million remaining on his current contract with the Chicago Blackhawks. When that deal expires, his newly signed six-year, $36 million extension will go into effect. When it expires in 2020, Crawford will be 35 years old.
It’s hard not to question Crawford’s massive extension. As a matter of fact, it’s incredibly easy to raise concerns about it. In a league that more and more is shelling out large quantities of money based more on potential than on past performance, it says a lot that Crawford’s new contract is this suspect. It’s especially true when the point of lengthy contracts on small sample sizes is to buy UFA years and save money in the long run, and this one pays a premium on a player who is a year away from UFA status.
Crawford’s first two seasons as a starter were uneven. He made 57 appearances in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, with the first year proving to be above average while the second year was decidedly disappointing. In 2010-11, Crawford was 33-18-6 with a 2.30/.917 split. Including only goaltenders to start at least half their team’s games, Crawford’s save percentage ranked 13th. In even-strength save percentage, Crawford was 16th in the league at .924. That’s perfectly fine for a first-year starter in the NHL.
Crawford then signed a three-year contract extension that ends after this season, and he spent 2011-12 looking like he wasn’t worth $2.66 million, never mind $6 million.
His win-loss totals were very similar in 2011-12, but if you’re the type of person that screams about wins and rings when defending a goaltender’s play, perhaps hockey isn’t your game. Maybe cheering on your child as he or she plays duck-duck-goose is more your speed. Or perhaps musical chairs would be easier for you to follow. But if you can’t see past the wins statistic, we shouldn’t be having this conversation.
Even with a 30-17-7 mark in Year 2, his other numbers fell off a cliff. Using the same criteria as earlier, his 2.72 GAA ranked him 25th in the NHL. His .903 save percentage ranked 27th. His .915 even-strength save percentage also ranked 27th. He was pulled from a start for ineffectiveness seven times. In a six-game first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, Crawford had a measly .893 save percentage and lost three games in overtime, the last two losses coming on goals that could be described as either terrible or really terrible.
In one of the tighter playoff series in NHL history, a case could be made the Blackhawks lost because of Crawford.
Through two seasons as an NHL starting goaltender, Crawford wasn’t even mediocre. He ranked 19th in save percentage among goaltenders to play in at least 100 games over that stretch. It’s hard say Crawford was anything but subpar as an NHL goaltender up until this point.
Then last year happened. A 48-game season happened. A Stanley Cup happened. And suddenly, Crawford has the fifth-highest cap hit among goaltenders for the 2014-15 season (and will be the sixth-highest once Henrik Lundqvist puts pen to paper between now and next season). In the blink of an eye, a goaltender whose ability was universally questioned was suddenly making elite money based on a terrific 50-game stretch in an anomaly of a season.
There’s no denying that Crawford had a very good postseason. He won 16 games (wins!) and led the league in GAA (1.84). He was fifth in save percentage (.932) but of the eight goaltenders who reached the second round, he was seventh in even-strength save percentage (.930). But outside of one game in the Final in which he was god-awful (but won!), Crawford did everything required of him to give his fantastic team a chance to win the Cup.
Of course, it all happened following a lockout-shortened regular season in which he made only 28 starts, putting him in an almost equal time share with Ray Emery. Crawford was excellent in his appearances (1.94/.926), but Emery was just as good (1.94/.922). You’d think that would be a strong tip-off that just about any competent goaltender could’ve have had a great partial year in Chicago, but that clearly wasn’t what Stan Bowman thought.
Factoring in Crawford’s career year, his first three seasons as a starter in the NHL still aren’t all that impressive. He ranks 15th in save percentage among goaltenders with 130 appearances since 2010-11.
Staring all that information in the eye, it begs the question – why would the Blackhawks give Crawford all that money, and why would they give him all that money a year before he reaches unrestricted free agency.
Let’s assume for a second that Crawford is in fact worth $6 million on the open market, a place he wasn’t going for another 10 months. Based on pure performance and economics, Crawford’s value is at its absolute highest right now. He had Vezina-worthy numbers in 2013 (if they had been over a full season and not almost evenly split with another goaltender) and was one bad game away from winning a Conn Smythe to go with his Stanley Cup.
Crawford has never had two good seasons in a row, and his best season came during a 48-game schedule, something that won’t happen again during his career (knock on wood). What does it hurt to see how Crawford responds this season, one in which he will be expected to play 60-65 games with Nikolai Khabibulin as his backup? Even if Crawford only falls off a little bit from last season, the Blackhawks would still want to keep him and could probably make a case he’s worth a little less than $6 million, too.
Throw in the fact that Crawford will be one of the goaltenders adversely affected by the league cracking down on oversized pads, and it’s another reason to avoid rushing into a long-term deal.
Of course, the point of locking him down now is so the Blackhawks don’t have to worry about him fleeing via free agency. Hockey players are not birds that you set free in the hopes they come back to you, as birds are dumb disease carriers that eat bugs and poop on cars while hockey players will sign with the team that pays them the most money because you can buy stuff with money and hockey players are like everyone else in that they like money.
The problem, though, is who exactly would the Blackhawks have been bidding against to retain Crawford’s services? A look at which teams will potentially have vacancies in net following the 2013-14 season shows there weren’t too many enticing places for Crawford to go.
Since we’re talking about free-agent goaltenders, of course the Philadelphia Flyers are the first team that must be mentioned. They have Steve Mason and Emery, and both come off the books after this season. The Flyers would of course throw buckets of gold coins and diamond-studded pucks at Crawford if he was available, but why would Crawford go there? In theory, if the Flyers are looking for a goaltender next summer, that means the Mason experiment failed and the Flyers missed the playoffs for a second year in a row. How is that a better option than Chicago for similar money?
All signs point to this being Ryan Miller’s least season in Buffalo, but really, is that an attractive landing place for Crawford? Devan Dubnyk is a free agent after this season, but if the Edmonton Oilers have any success this season, they’re going to sign him to a new deal. If they miss the playoffs yet again, they’re going to lure Crawford from Chicago? “Hey, Corey, want to come play for the team where next year is always going to be the year?”
What about the New York Islanders? Evgeni Nabokov is 38, and whether the team has success or not, he could be playing his final season there. If the Islanders build on last season, sure, that could be a place for Crawford. It’s a young team theoretically on the upswing. But if last season is proven to be a fluke and the Islanders again miss the playoffs, what’s the attraction for Crawford? Jones Beach? Driving past Mike Francesa’s house in the dead of night and throwing Diet Coke bottles at his door?
Jonas Hiller is a free agent after this season, but the Anaheim Ducks have a cheap option in Viktor Fasth who they would be happy to hitch their wagon to long term if he has a solid second season.
The two most attractive destinations for Crawford, in theory, would be the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. The Rangers are working on getting Lundqvist signed right now, but should he decide to see how this season plays out, he could hit the open market if the team stinks it up in 2013-14. The Blues have to make a decision on Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, and if for some reason they decided to let both leave after this season, Crawford would be a fine replacement.
So in essence, the Blackhawks were afraid to get into a bidding war or battle for Crawford’s heart with maybe the Rangers, Blues and perhaps the Islanders. That makes Chicago’s decision to pay out now for Crawford even more perplexing.
Consider this: If the Rangers or Blues became Crawford’s new home, that means either Lundqvist or Halak would be available. Lundqvist would be about a $1 million per year more expensive, while Halak would likely come at a far cheaper price tag than $6 million per season and both would provide comparable or even superior results. Since all of the aforementioned options would be available to Lundqvist and Halak, again, Chicago is the superior destination for any free-agent goaltender looking to join a winner long-term, again placing the Blackhawks in a superior negotiating position.
Bowman would have to play an intense game of chicken, but if there’s the possibility you can land Lundqvist or Halak (but especially Lundqvist) next summer, doesn’t it benefit you to wait to see what unfolds between now and then with Crawford? Is Crawford really going to get six years and $36 million from another team, never mind a team that is set up to contend for Cups in a major city for the duration of the contract like Chicago?
The answer is an emphatic no.
Crawford’s best season came during a shortened 48-game campaign. Is there anything that can be learned from the 1995 season that was the same length? Can we look at goaltenders from that season and use anything from there to predict what will happen going forward today?
For the most part, the best goalies in 1995 were the best goalies in all the other years preceding and beyond. Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour and Martin Brodeur were among the leaders in various categories, but there were a few players who shined almost out of nowhere in the truncated season and faded into oblivion in the years that followed.
* In 18 games, Jocelyn Thibault had a .917 save percentage, second-best in the NHL. He never reached or eclipsed that number over the rest of his career.
* Stephane Fiset, the other half of Quebec’s tandem with Thibault, had the best season of his career in 1995 but never became an effective full-time starter in the years that followed.
* Jim Carey received All-Rookie Team honors and won the Vezina the following season. Of course, he fell off the face of the planet after that.
* Chris Osgood, the overwhelming comparable for Crawford in the wake of the news of his new contract, went 14-5-0 in 19 games that season. However, Osgood never matched his .917 save percentage that season over the rest of his career. After Osgood won the Cup in 1998, Red Wings GM Ken Holland never broke the bank for him, instead opting for his Cheap Goalie Plan since he had such an elite team beyond the net, sort of like Chicago has now, and you could say it worked really well.
The big difference between Crawford and those four goaltenders is experience. Crawford was a full-time starter for two seasons before his lockout season; Carey was a rookie; Thibault and Osgood were in their second years and Fiset was in his second season as a full-time starter. It’s not exactly comparing apples and oranges; it’s more like oranges and clementines.
Corey Crawford, however is not an orange or a clementine. He is not Jim Carey or Stephane Fiset or Chris Osgood or Jocelyn Thibault. He’s different both on a molecular level and in a space-time continuum sense in that he is an individual whose life has yet to unfold and exists in the present time. He could very well emerge as an elite goaltender who wins gold in Sochi and Stanley again in Chicago.
That being said, it wouldn’t have hurt the Blackhawks to wait on such lengthy, lucrative commitment to such an unknown commodity that shows all the signs of immediately decreasing in value when the puck drops in October when better and/or cheaper options could have been available.