One of the most surprising moves of the trade deadline was the Chicago Blackhawks dealing goaltender Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights. While the 28-year-old Lehner signing a one-year deal in Chicago this summer was strange in the first place, it was beginning to look like it was merely the first step in a long-term relationship between the two sides. Lehner, although splitting time evenly with Corey Crawford, was enjoying a good season and looked like he could be the team’s starter moving forward with the 35-year-old Crawford also on an expiring contract. Instead, he was traded away for backup Malcolm Subban, a prospect, and a second-round pick. His recent comments about his time in Chicago make it all but certain that Lehner will not be playing for the Blackhawks again.
Chicago’s situation in net is now more unclear than any other team in the NHL. Yet, even without any potential long-term solution in place, GM Stan Bowman told the Chicago Sun Times’ Ben Pope that the team will definitely have a “proven NHL goalie signed for next year.” The question is who?
Bowman specifically named Crawford, Subban, Collin Delia, and Kevin Lankinen as internal options for next season. However, any of those names would come as a disappointment to ‘Hawks fans as next season’s starter. The veteran Crawford is in the final season of a six-year, $36MM contract, over the course of which he has gone from elite to replacement-level and has missed significant time to boot. Crawford can no longer be relied upon as an NHL starter, at least not for a playoff team, and giving him an extension would not be well received by many of the team’s supporters. With that said, he would still be the best option if the team stays internal. None of Subban, Delia, or Lankinen could possibly fit Bowman’s description of “proven”; Subban and Delia have a combined 83 NHL appearances and Lankinen has yet to make his on-ice debut in the league. Subban struggled in his role as primary backup to Marc-Andre Fleury in Vegas, forcing the aging netminder to take on a heavy workload, while Delia also had a difficult time in the role for a brief time last season. Neither appears to be NHL starter material at the very least and Lankinen is completely unproven. So are any of the current Blackhawks keepers really candidates to be Bowman’s starter?
If the Blackhawks want to return to relevance in the NHL, they must bring in an outside candidate to take the starter’s job next season. However, the open market also doesn’t offer any obvious fits. With Lehner presumably off the table, the top candidates who could be available in free agency are Braden Holtby, Jacob Markstrom, Anton Khudobin, Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss, and Mike Smith.
Holtby is undoubtedly the top available name and the best fit as a true workhorse starter for the Blackhawks, but with nearly $72MM committed to just 15 players for next season, Chicago would have to work some magic on the cap to make space to sign Holtby. Even with room to sign him, they would also need to take into account that Holtby is also on the wrong side of 30 and has struggled this season with the Washington Capitals.
Next in line would be Markstrom, who from an ability, age, and cost perspective makes a lot of sense for Chicago. The problem is that he also makes a lot of sense to the Vancouver Canucks, who are expected to re-sign him. If Markstrom is out there, expect the Blackhawks to be one of a number of interested suitors, but potentially the leader of the pack.
Based on recent results, the trio of Khudobin, Halak, and Greiss would be the next level down. All three veterans have been stellar over the past two years albeit playing in backup roles. Any of them could improve the Blackhawks’ results when in net, but the problem is that they would likely leave upwards of 35-40 games for the likes of Delia, Subban, or Lankinen (assuming the latter two RFA’s are qualified) to handle. This does not exactly sound like a fix for Chicago, but it could be better than nothing. All three would be relatively inexpensive additions who have a track record of getting the job done, given adequate rest. Khudobin has been the best of the three this season, while Halak is the most experienced and Greiss’ role with the New York Islanders in recent years has most closely resembled a starter.
Smith is another strong candidate, assuming he is available. Like Markstrom, there is a good chance that Smith could re-sign with his current team, the Edmonton Oilers. There is also the possibility that the 38-year-old could retire. If not though, Smith checks a number of boxes. While serving as more of a split-time goalie this season, Smith has been a starter for much of his career, dating back to the late 2000’s. His numbers are not fantastic – in fact, Crawford has been better this season – nor is he a long-term plan, but Smith would provide a change in net and stable if unspectacular play. His price should not be high and his market should not be overwhelming. If the Blackhawks are simply looking for a fresh face and a stopgap while they wait for superior options, Smith could be the guy.
Of course, the team could also go the trade route this summer. The New York Rangers could be selling either superstar Henrik Lundqvist or young Alexandar Georgiev, either of whom would provide and upgrade in the Chicago net. Struggling starters Martin Jones of San Jose and Pekka Rinne of Nashville could become available, as could former starters who have been replaced such as Arizona’s Antti Raanta or Pittsburgh’s Matt Murray. The signings of Holtby, Lehner, and others could also displace other names. It’s hard to predict the off-season trade market at this point, but given the lack of obvious options in free agency, it is safe to assume that Bowman will kick some tires. But will cap constraints and lacking trade capital limit their ability in this market as well?
What do you think? Who will be the Blackhawks’ starting goalie in 2020-21?