By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — The Chicago Blackhawks have a problem on their hands that’s going to get worse.
They can bury their heads in the sand and laugh it off if they want, but that will just cause the problem to fester.
The problem is in goal. It’s not starting goalie Corey Crawford, who remains one of the best goalies in the NHL with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
It’s backup Nikolai Khabibulin, who has gotten off to a poor start and does not appear to have what it takes to win games consistently in the NHL any longer.
Stan Bowman knows this is a serious concern. When the Blackhawks rolled to their sensational regular-season performance last year, backup Ray Emery split the 48-game workload with Crawford. He was every bit as good as Crawford, and possibly a tad better.
Emery did not get any work in the postseason and Crawford was clearly the team’s No. 1 goalie, but the backup goalie did a sensational job when he was asked.
Crawford was fresh for the playoffs, and that’s one of the reason the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup.
Emery left the Blackhawks during the summer and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers for more money. He may be regretting that decision as the Flyers have been among the most disappointing teams in the league with a 3-9-0 record. Emery performed disgracefully when he started brawling with Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby Friday night.
Fighting in hockey is the subject for discussion on another day. Right now, the subject on the docket is Khabibulin’s performance, or lack thereof.
So far this season, Khabibulin has played three games for the Blackhawks and has a 4.74 goals against average and an .818 save percentage. In the Blackhawks’ Oct. 29 games vs. the Ottawa Senators, Khabibulin gave up four goals in slightly more than 30 minutes of action and head coach Joel Quenneville pulled him from the game.
Three games may not be enough for Khabibulin to show how he can play, but it is enough to make a lousy impression and raise the question of whether Khabibulin, 40, can still play.
While he had decent numbers for a poor Edmonton team in a relief role each of the last two years – 2.65 and 2.54 GAA — he may not have much left to give a contending team.
Bowman and Quenneville can’t afford to have a backup goalie who his unable to carry his weight. Crawford is an excellent goalie, but he won’t be in the playoffs if he gets overworked during the regular season.
In an ideal situation, Crawford would play about 50 games prior to the playoffs and then he would be fresh at the most important part of the year.
If Khabibulin is not good enough, Crawford will play 65 games or more and will get worn out. That’s something the Blackhawks can’t afford.
The longer they wait to make a move in this area, the more it’s likely to cost them in terms of trade value and postseason effectiveness for their top goalie.
Bowman needs to get on the phone and find a No. 2 goalie who is sharp, hungry and effective. An older backup who is well past his prime is not the right answer.
The Blackhawks are paying Khabibulin $2 million this season. It’s money that could be better spent on a goalie who is prepared to back up Crawford effectively.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.