CHICAGO — The Chicago Blackhawks will not re-sign goaltender Corey Crawford in free agency, parting with a key member of its Stanley Cup-winning core and potentially signalling a more extensive rebuild for one of the NHL’s marquee franchises.
General manager Stan Bowman said he had a "bit of an emotional" conversation with Crawford on Thursday.
"The message to Corey and to everyone else today is that we’ve decided that we’ve got some young goaltenders here in Chicago that we believe in," Bowman said on a video conference call.
Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen, who are in line to share the net with Crawford gone, have a combined 18 games of NHL experience — all belonging to Delia. Chicago opened last season with Crawford and Robin Lehner in goal, but it traded Lehner to Vegas in February and he re-signed with the Golden Knights for a $25 million, five-year deal.
Malcolm Subban, a goaltender who came over in the Lehner deal, is eligible for unrestricted free agency after he didn’t receive a qualifying offer, but Bowman said the team is interested in bringing him back.
Crawford, who turns 36 on Dec. 31, went 16-20 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.77 goals-against average during the pandemic-shortened season. He started every game as Chicago eliminated Edmonton in the qualifying round before losing to the Golden Knights in the playoffs.
Crawford, a Montreal native, was selected by Chicago in the second round of the 2003 draft and made his debut with the Blackhawks in 2010. He helped the franchise to Stanley Cup titles in 2013 and 2015.
"Much like Corey needed that opportunity when he came up after the 2010 season — he had been with us for a few years, working his way up — we’ve got a couple young goalies here in Lankinen and Delia who we haven’t given a real big opportunity to," Bowman said. "With where we’re headed, the NHL is relying more and more on young players. We’re going to embrace that moving forward."
The Blackhawks missed the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons. They also would have missed out this year if the NHL hadn’t decided to go with a 24-team post-season format.
Whoever replaces Crawford in net jumps into a tough situation. Chicago allowed an NHL-high 35.1 shots per game this year, and rookie defencemen Ian Mitchell and Wyatt Kalynuk are expected to join the lineup next season.
But the move also creates more room to manoeuvr with the NHL’s flat $81.5 million salary cap. The Blackhawks extended qualifying offers to restricted free agents Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome, and Bowman left open the possibility of bringing back one of team’s non-tendered RFAs.
"It doesn’t necessarily mean these players won’t be coming back to the Blackhawks," Bowman said. "I think, in particular, we’re hopeful that we can get Malcolm signed."
Crawford joins an impressive list of available goaltenders that also includes Henrik Lundqvist, Braden Holtby, Thomas Greiss, Jacob Markstrom and Anton Khudobin. Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury also is reportedly available via trade after Lehner signed his new deal.
Crawford, who missed parts of the previous two seasons because of concussions, has 260 wins with a .918 save percentage and 2.45 GAA in 488 career NHL games. The team paid tribute to Crawford on its Twitter account after the announcement, and Bowman said he belongs in the same conversation as the franchise’s elite goaltenders.
"To be a two-time Stanley Cup champion, the only goaltender in the history of the Blackhawks to do that, I think it speaks volumes to his ability," Bowman said. "He’s up there with the legends for the Blackhawks; Tony Esposito, Glenn Hall, Corey Crawford."