Rozner: Wondering aloud about Crawford's Blackhawks future
Corey Crawford was the Blackhawks' best player Tuesday night.
Think about how many times you've said that in the last 10 years.
His 3-0 victory over Dallas was further evidence that his game has picked up considerably after a poor start to the season, also not surprising given how little he played the last two seasons.
But the man who should have won the Conn Smythe twice while carrying the Hawks to a pair of Stanley Cup victories is at a crossroads with his contract expiring this season.
Complicating matters is that the man alternating games with him right now, 28-year-old Robin Lehner, is six years Crawford's junior and has been the team's best player so far this season.
It seemed like an odd signing over the summer, but credit GM Stan Bowman with shoring up the net when he wasn't certain what the Hawks would get from Crawford, not knowing how much he would be available.
After the last two years, the Hawks just couldn't be sure.
But what's been obvious to everyone is that Lehner has been spectacular and worthy of consideration for a long-term deal, while trust in Crawford is a week-to-week proposition because of his health history.
Like Crawford, Lehner is unrestricted after the season, pulling down $5 million this season, his cap hit a million less than Crawford's.
It's only been a quarter of the season and it's way too early to make a judgment. Nothing has been decided and won't be for many months as you can't make that call without more evidence.
But when you operate in a salary-cap world, you're always thinking about next year with an eye on the next five or six, and with the Hawks intending to compete, Lehner -- all things being equal and assuming he plays like this all season -- would be the obvious choice in goal moving forward.
There is, of course, the question of what he would command and whether he wants to hit the open market.
The Hawks have 24-year-old Kevin Lankinen at Rockford and have drafted goalies three of the last four years, but it was Lankinen who posted a .942 save percentage while backstopping Finland to gold at the World Championship last spring.
Still, the Hawks won't enter next season without an established NHL veteran and it will be tricky for them to navigate the rest of this season with thoughts of next year, knowing the respect they must show Crawford.
It was only 13 months ago that Tampa coach Jon Cooper was talking about Crawford as a future Hall of Famer
"Just looking from afar and having played these guys in the (2015) Stanley Cup Final, you can sit here and talk about (Jonathan) Toews, (Patrick) Kane, (Duncan) Keith, but it was Crawford that was the calming influence," Cooper said. "It was Crawford that stopped us. Then, all the guys took over after that.
"So I think you're going to look back at his resume and if he continues with a little bit more longevity here, he'll be hard to keep out of the Hall of Fame conversation.
"If you were to sit here and make a list of the three guys in this league that are probably not talked about near enough, he's going to be one of them."
Crawford, who turns 35 on Dec. 31, has missed too much time now for the Hall of Fame to be realistic, unless he stays healthy and plays at a high level past age 40, especially since he's never received his proper due around the league.
"Everyone here knows he should have been MVP," Kane said in 2013 after winning the Conn Smythe. "He was great for us."
Said Keith after taking home the Conn Smythe in 2015, "I don't know what else he can do. He's won a lot of games for us by himself. He did in this series when we weren't very good.
"Let's face it, we don't win the Cup if he doesn't steal a couple of these games for us. I don't know what else he has to do to answer the questions."
The question now is whether this is it for Crawford in Chicago. It's not one that needs to be answered now, nor will it be until the spring or maybe even summer, unless a Hawks goalie draws interest around the trade deadline.
And if Crawford continues to play the way he has the last month -- closing your eyes to Friday's game -- he will not lack for job opportunities with Cup-contending teams if the Hawks go another direction.
Regardless, his crucial place in Blackhawks annals is secure, not in the conversation with Tony Esposito or Glenn Hall, but trailing only those Hall of Famers in franchise lore.
That is not a history to be messed with and the Hawks must handle it with care.
Still, the hard truth is the guy he's sharing the net with has been much better and is much younger.
So if you were starting to wonder if this will be Crawford's final year in Chicago, you would not be alone.