Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Netminders To Pay Mind To

The hockey world was abuzz after the signing of Cristobal Huet to the Chicago Blackhawks. Signing a four year contract, Huet is expected to battle Nikolai Khabibulin for the starting goaltender spot in 2008-2009 and will claim his spot as the starting goalie the following as Khabibulin’s contract expires June 2009.But as of right now, the Blackhawks have 12 million dollars wrapped up in goaltending for the 2008-2009 season, by far the most spent on goalies in the NHL. But, when both goalies are healthy, the Blackhawks have by far the best duo of goalies in the NHL. They are compensated as such.

But there is confusion coming out of the Blackhawks front office in regards to the team’s intentions at goalie this season. The word from general manager Dale Tallon seems to change daily, and as of now, the Blackhawks, who are slightly over the salary cap, intend to keep both star netminders in 08-09. There was word that Khabibulin, expected to make just under seven million dollars for the upcoming campaign, was being shopped to other teams earlier in the week.

But with the recent statement by Tallon that Khabibulin would play for the ‘Hawks this season, the team is faced with a conundrum. They have three NHL goaltenders for a roster that can only carry two.

They have Khabibulin, who is spectacular when locked in, but inconsistent in his performance and ability to play. They now have Huet, who is solid, consistent, albeit unspectacular. A number one goaltender without doubt, Huet isn’t as talented as Khabibulin by half, but is certainly twice as reliable to give the Blackhawks his best, night in and night out.

Then they have Corey Crawford. Crawford went 1-2 for the Blackhawks last year in emergency reserve duty, replacing Khabibulin, who (to no one’s surprise) was injured. Crawford had a coming out party of sorts against Detroit, saving 44 of 46 shots in a 3-1 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Crawford, before the signing of Huet, was supposed to start a minimum of 30 games as Khabibulin’s backup in 08-09. If he performed well and the Blackhawks liked what they saw, he would be the number one goalie in 09-10. With Huet in town until 2012, Crawford’s time table looks to be pushed back at least two years, possibly four, when he would be 28 years old. Quite a drastic difference for the young man who was rock solid in the Ice Hogs' run in the AHL Calder Cup playoffs the past year.

All that said, the signing of Huet still makes sense for the Hawks. He might be the starting goalie this year, and if not, he will be the best backup in the NHL. Khabibulin will end his Chicago campaign, a campaign that some say was a reign of terror, holding fans hostage, at the end of the year. Huet will immediately fill the vacancy of number one with Crawford becoming the backup in 09-10.

It is theoretical that Crawford could beat out Huet for the starting job the year after. But Crawford is not a Carey Price type talent. And while he could be a top of the list starting NHL goaltender, it seems more likely that he will fit the mold of a Huet. Solid, certainly a number one, but not spectacular. Because of this, it seems unlikely that he will pull a coup and take Huet’s job any time before the last year of Huet’s contract. And while his playing time could certainly increase from year to year, it seems unlikely that Crawford will be starting goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks in the foreseeable future. Taking into consideration that Dale Tallon recently said that Crawford was “right on schedule” to be the starting goalie in 09-10, the signing of Huet is a drastic shift.
And while the signing of Huet might only have the implication of making the Blackhawks a better team, which it certainly appears to have done, a side effect seems to be that the Blackhawks have lost an enormous amount of confidence in their goaltender of the future, Crawford. That honor might have been passed without intention to prospect Josh Unice, who for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL had a regular season 2.309 GAA and .908 save percentage. But while those numbers are pedestrian, his playoff numbers that helped the Rangers to the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup, were better than his regular season totals. Unice racked up a .915 save percentage in the playoffs to go along with a 2.375 goals against average. Pairing that with a CHL player of the week honor, the Blackhawks could see a great upside for the 18 year old. Crawford could leave as a free agent before Huet’s contract is up, and at least at this point, if that happens, Unice seems to be the answer to the question of who will be Huet’s home grown backup.

But right now, the Blackhawks have an incredibly solid goaltending situation. In fact, a their goaltending situation can be labeled as Stanley Cup caliber. They paid for those expectations. Drama and intrigue will certainly continue as the season goes on, as Huet and Khabibulin battle for the starting spot and Crawford, who will see time when, seemingly not if, Khabibulin gets shelved with injuries, fights to prove his worth to the organization that has seemingly shunned him. The soap opera of goaltenders on the west side of Chicago will be cast and produced by Dale Tallon and directed by Denis Savard.

It certainly looks to be a thoroughly entertaining show.

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