By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) — Friday night, Blackhawks goaltender Antti Raanta picked up his ninth win of the season for the Blackhawks. It was his thirteenth appearance in net for the Hawks and eighth consecutive start. In those games, he’s posted a 2.18 goals against average and a .915 save percentage. Those are terrific numbers, especially for an NHL rookie playing on smaller, North American ice for the first time.
He’s shown an above average glove hand, while making a spectacular save seemingly every night. The young Finn seems to get better and more comfortable with every passing game.
Therein lies the problem for Stan Bowman. What will the Hawks’ GM do if Raanta continues his stellar play?
Corey Crawford, who was outstanding last season and in the Stanley Cup playoffs, was awarded a six year, $36 million contract this summer. While there’s little doubt that Crawford earned that money, some would say he’s been the beneficiary of a great defense, and isn’t the elite goalie his past numbers and accomplishments may lead you to believe.
So far this season, Crawford isn’t posting the numbers and consistent play he did last season. To be fair, the Hawks’ penalty kill started the season very poorly, and didn’t show signs of life until very recently, well after Raanta took over for the injured Crawford in early December. Crawford was also put in a tough situation when Nikolai Khabibulin, who was supposed to be Crawford’s backup all season, was absolutely awful, then injured. Before his injury, Crawford was forced to play night after night, which obviously isn’t ideal for a goaltender.
Enter Raanta, who has been the better of the two goalies this season. Obviously, thirteen games don’t make a season or career, but if Raanta continues to play at his current level, Bowman and the Hawks can’t ignore the fact that he’s younger, cheaper, and potentially better than Crawford.
I know what you’re thinking. “This is good news. The Hawks have two quality goaltenders.”
While that’s true, Raanta becomes a restricted free agent this summer. The Hawks have the right to sign him or match any other team’s offer, but how can the Hawks justify close to $10 million* in goalies with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane out of contract after next season?
Should the Hawks trade Crawford? It’s very hard to say if and when that would be prudent. Crawford has proven to be a Stanley Cup caliber goalie, but what if Raanta goes elsewhere and proves elite for less money? Every dollar counts in the salary cap era.
Could the Hawks trade Crawford? Teams are always seeking consistent goalies, but his $6 million cap hit could certainly be a snag.
I’m glad this isn’t my decision to make, because right now I don’t know if I’m ready to make a call either way. I’m sure Bowman, who’s always been patient and calculated, isn’t ready to make such a decision at this point, either.
Bowman always seems to make the right call, both financially and hockey-wise, but this is far from a no brainer. With every Raanta save and win, the decision becomes more difficult.
*$10 million number based on Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration reward after the 2010 season in which he won the Stanley Cup. Crawford receives $6 million annually, while Raanta would likely command or be rewarded just under $4 million, considering inflation and the growth of the salary cap.