We’ve seen what the Chicago Blackhawks can be with good goaltending and what they are with bad goaltending. In the 2019-20 season, the Blackhawks were a bad team with some of the league’s best goaltending from Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner. Thanks to the reconfiguration of the postseason in 2020, Chicago made the playoffs and Crawford played a huge role in the play-in series win for the Blackhawks. They then lost to Lehner, whom they traded to Vegas at the deadline, in the actual playoffs.
In 2018-19, the Blackhawks were an all gas and no brakes team that saw Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Dylan Strome, and Erik Gustafsson all have career-best years in point production. With the trio of an injured Corey Crawford, Cam Ward, and Collin Delia, they had a team .898 save-percentage and missed the postseason.
Right now, the Blackhawks are in the bottom-third of the NHL after a 1-9-2 start to the season where nothing seemed to go right and the team had no fire behind them. Marc-André Fleury was brought in to be the catalyst in net to put Chicago over the top and into Stanley Cup Playoff contention, but there was only so much he could do behind a team getting out-shot and out-chanced on a nightly basis. Since making the head coaching change on November 6, the Blackhawks are 7-3-0 and have an identity as a low-event team that likes to counter-attack.
It’s working. Over those ten games, the Blackhawks have an .864 save-percentage against high-danger chances (3rd in the NHL) and a team .925 save-percentage between Marc-André Fleury and Kevin Lankinen. To have success as a low-event team, you have to have quality goaltending, because playing from behind is not sustainable, especially when you have a number of players on scoring droughts.
While it might work this season to turn things around, Fleury is 37-years-old and on the final year of his current contract. It took convincing to get him to come to Chicago this season and there’s almost no chance he plays for the Blackhawks beyond this season. There’s a possibility he might not finish this season in Chicago, too.
Fleury, along with backup Kevin Lankinen, are both only signed through the end of this season. As is Collin Delia in the AHL. Chicago just traded Malcolm Subban to the Buffalo Sabres after sending him to the AHL to begin the year. The only goaltender on the books beyond the end of this season for the Blackhawks is rookie Arvid Söderblom, who is playing with the Rockford IceHogs.
So what is the future plan for Chicago in net?
Interim General Manager Kyle Davidson is operating as if he is going to be the permanent GM beyond this season. He has been given the full authority to run the team from Rocky Wirtz, and in doing so, has already fired Jeremy Colliton and traded Subban. The next decision he makes in net should be one that paints a picture for the organization beyond the 2021-22 season. In all likelihood, it will come with an extension for Kevin Lankinen.
Lankinen earned the starting role last season out of the trio of him, Subban, and Delia. He was a major reason why the Blackhawks were in any sort of playoff hunt for most of the season, posting a 17-14-5 record with a .909 save-percentage and a 3.01 GAA as a rookie. It looked like it was yet again going to be a battle between the three goaltenders heading into this season before Chicago made the acquisition of Fleury. Lankinen earned the backup role in training camp and has a 2-3-2 record with a .888 save-percentage and a 3.20 GAA. It’s not great whatsoever, but like Fleury, Lankinen was a victim of a poorly performing team in front of him to begin the season. He’s won two of his last three starts since November 7 over the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues.
Lankinen doesn’t scream long-term plan at all. He’s a good backup to have, but he’s not going to be a goaltender to lead the Blackhawks into the next era of hockey in Chicago. But he’s the best option Chicago has internally.
Looking at the upcoming 2022 and 2023 free agent markets for goaltenders, there’s not many “long-term” goaltenders out there for the Blackhawks to potentially consider making an offer for.
Notable FA Goalies (2022):
Marc-André Fleury (CHI)
Darcy Kuemper (COL)
Joonas Korpisalo (CBJ)
Braden Holtby (DAL)
Jack Campbell (TOR)
RFA – Karel Vejmelka (ARI)
RFAs – Vitek Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov (WSH)
RFA – Eric Comrie (WPG)
RFA – Joseph Woll (TOR)
Notable FA Goalies (2023):
Frederik Andersen (CAR)
Tristan Jarry (PIT)
Alex Nedeljkovic (DET)
Adin Hill (SJS)
All of these upcoming free agent goaltenders feel like either over their prime and over their value options or players who would be filling the gap until someone long-term came along. Of course there’s also the option of trading for a goaltender, but to get a long-term option in net, it would require the Blackhawks to part ways with one of their more stable skaters. It could happen, but it doesn’t seem likely.
There is a possibility that the Blackhawks are waiting patiently until 2020 second-round pick Drew Commesso is ready to make his way to the NHL. Commesso was a breakout rookie at Boston University last season, but has had a rough start to his Sophomore year with a 4-7-2 record and a .889 save-percentage. Much like the Blackhawks of earlier this season, Commesso has been a victim of an underwhelming Terriers team in front of him this season. Commesso was supposed to be one of the goaltenders for Team USA at last year’s World Junior Championships, but did not make the team due to COVID restrictions. This year, he is slated to be the starting goaltender for Team USA and could give Blackhawks fans a glimpse into what may be the future in net in Chicago.
If Kyle Davidson is going to operate as if he is the permanent General Manager in Chicago, he’s going to have to continue to give the team a direction from a front office standpoint. Interim head coach Derek King has done so on the ice and so far, so good with their recent results. The forwards group has a direction with Alex DeBrincat, Kirby Dach, Brandon Hagel, and Lukas Reichel all seemingly in the plans long-term. The defensive group is shaping up for the future as well behind Seth Jones, Jake McCabe, and Connor Murphy. Now the plan needs to come into place in between the pipes for the Blackhawks to move forward into a new era of hockey in Chicago.