Blackhawks could face crisis with Corey Crawford still shrouded in mystery

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Corey Crawford (Getty Images)

CHICAGO — The saving grace for the 2018-19 Blackhawks is supposed to be Corey Crawford. Chicago optimists point to how the Blackhawks were still a playoff contender before Crawford was sidelined with a mysterious head injury, and believe his return to health can catapult the team back to the postseason.

Unfortunately, any feel-good narrative should have been deflated Friday when Crawford met the media before the Blackhawks’ annual fan convention. Unlike general manager Stan Bowman’s and coach Joel Quenneville’s positivity, Crawford only said it would be “very possible” for him to feel 100 percent by training camp and stopped far short of saying he’d be ready for the Oct. 4 opener.

“I am feeling pretty good right now. I am not at 100 percent yet,” said Crawford, who still hasn’t skated. “But we’ve come a long way in the last couple months and I worked really hard to do whatever I can to get better and I’m excited to be here right now and see all the guys and get that feeling of being back in it.”

Regardless of Crawford’s status for September and October, the fact the Blackhawks were exposed as being so dependent on their goalie last season is troubling for many reasons. One of which is how they’ll have to handle his workload if and when he does play this season.

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Since becoming the unquestioned starter during the 2010-11 season, Crawford hasn’t been the NHL’s most durable goalie, never playing more than 57 games in a campaign. Even if he does come back sometime this season, it’s not like the Blackhawks will be able to ride him as much as they’d like to save a roster that, barring a move before camp, still looks too weak to compete with the NHL elite.

“Crow’s always played around 55 games anyways if you look back at all his stats. It’s not the amount of games, just something that happened that doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of games that he’s played in the past,” Chicago goalie coach Jimmy Waite said. “If he comes back, I think 55 games is a good number for sure.”

That means former Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward will have to step in for at least 35 games. And though the Blackhawks are quick to point out his Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe resume, those days are far in the past for Ward. Last season, Ward had a 23-14-4 record that masked a .906 save percentage, and he only regained the No. 1 job after former Chicago backup Scott Darling flopped badly.

In an absolute best-case scenario, Ward isn’t Crawford’s partner but his true backup who plays only when the two-time Stanley Cup winner needs a break. In the worst case, it’s Ward, Anton Forsberg or maybe prospect Collin Delia trying to keep Chicago competitive in the lethal Central Division.

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“I think I’m prepared to do whatever’s asked of me,” Ward said. “It’s tough, you go into a season you never really know what to expect. I think a lot about Corey Crawford and his game and his capabilities of being a number one, and I’m here to be a good partner for him and to be able to support him.”

The Blackhawks also know what they have to do to support Crawford, whose season ended in December with a 16-9-2 record, 2.27 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

To keep Crawford on the ice as much as possible and ready for the business end of the season, they’ll have to manage his health when and if he does return from the ailment they still haven’t disclosed. Waite didn’t want to say whether there’d be a concern about Crawford’s health if or when he does play again.

“I’m not a doctor, but I’ve talked to him a few times this summer and he’s feeling good right now,” Waite said. “Hopefully he keeps progressing to being 100 percent. Right now he’s not 100 percent yet but we feel confident that he’s going to be, so when he is he’s going to be the number one goalie and he’s going to play all the games. We’re going to manage those games as well, for sure.”

Among the many issues facing Crawford, the idea he hasn’t skated rubs some the wrong way. Other than an ill-fated skate Feb. 12 in Arizona, Crawford hasn’t been on the ice since his last start Dec. 23 in New Jersey.

Crawford made it clear he didn’t want to discuss what he’s doing to stay in shape.

“I’m not going to get into what I’m doing now,” he said. “Treatments are going well and we’re making small steps and I’m getting a little better so it’s a process. It’s been a process since I left in December. It hasn’t been easy but I’ll be back.”

Waite, who said Crawford has been working in the gym, was asked whether it would behoove Crawford to be skating now, considering the lengthy layoff. Unlike some observers, Waite said “I don’t think there’s any rush getting on the ice right now.”

He pointed to how there are still six weeks until training camp, and that once Crawford is 100 percent healthy, it wouldn’t take him that long to get ready.

“For sure it’s going to take a few games. It’s been since December, but it’s like riding a bike,” Waite said. “I think he’s going to be (able to) step right back into it. A few weeks of good ice time and a couple good exhibition games I think he’s going to be ready to go.”

By the time Crawford is ready to go, Chicago could be well past exhibition games. It could be Nov. 1, Nov. 15, Dec. 1 or even later. And at that point, Crawford would need to work himself into game shape during the heat of a pivotal season for Chicago’s future.

Duncan Keith, when informed that Crawford said he’s getting closer to returning, said “that’s good to hear that he’s getting better.”

“That’s positive. Probably just take as much as you can from that and hope that he keeps getting better,” Keith said. “There’s still a month, a month and a half until training camp and hopefully he’s ready. And if he’s not ready for training camp, hopefully he’s ready for Game 1. If he’s not ready for Game 1, hopefully he’s ready by Christmas or something.”

There is something Crawford is sure of: He’ll be able to return to the form that had him in contention for his first Vezina Trophy.

“I don’t doubt that at all,” Crawford said.