The 28-year-old was the team's most consistent player throughout a record-breaking regular season and memorable playoff run.
As he enters the final year of his contract that has a team-friendly salary cap hit of just $2.67 million, the Blackhawks front office, led by general manager Stan Bowman, must soon decide how valuable Crawford is to the club's success before offering him a new contract.
The biggest difference between the Blackhawks' disappointing exit from the first round of the 2012 playoffs and their championship campaign last year was the development of Crawford's game. His exceptional performances helped Chicago become a much better defensive team, which included a remarkable improvement on the penalty kill.
|Year||GAA (NHL Rank)
|2011-12||2.82 (22nd)||78.1 (27th)||.564 (8th)||0 (30th)|
|2013||2.02 (1st)||87.2 (3rd)||.704 (2nd)||7 (1st)|
Before ownership opens up the checkbook to keep Crawford around long-term, they will need to see a little more consistency first. He was solid in 2010-11, then took a small step back in 2011-12 before playing at an elite level last year (19-5-5, .926 SV% and a 1.94 GAA).
If Crawford's performance doesn't dip to start next season and he manages the expectations of a top-tier goalie on a contending team and shows an impressive level of consistency, there's no reason for the Blackhawks to hold off on re-signing him before he reaches the free agent market.
There are no elite goalie prospects in the organization, including Antti Raanta, who are capable of replacing him anytime soon. Current backup Nikolai Khabibulin, 40, is also not a long-term solution in net.
Quality goaltending is often the difference between Stanley Cup winners and the teams that come up just short. Five goalies have won the Conn Smythe Trophy since 2001 and, in that same span, only two teams have won the Stanley Cup with a goaltender posting a playoff GAA of 2.20 or higher.
Is Crawford worth $5.5 million per year?
Crawford has the second-best playoff GAA (2.04) in team history and, during last year's playoffs, the Quebec native proved that he could make clutch late-game saves against elite competition when the pressure was highest. That's the kind of goaltender worth spending money on to re-sign, especially since he's at the beginning of his prime.
A fair deal for both sides would be a five-year contract worth a total of $27.5 million. A $5.5 million annual average value (AAV) would make Crawford the 12th highest-paid goaltender in the league based on AAVs from the 2013-14 season, per CapGeek.
The Blackhawks don't have a ton of cap space going forward, and superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will need new contracts before the summer of 2015, but if the cap ceiling rises as expected in the next few years, Bowman should be able to keep his core together, including Crawford.
The problem for Chicago is the possibility that he decides to test the market and see if a team desperate for a No. 1 goaltender is willing to throw crazy money at him, maybe in the $6-7 million range.
But at the same time, leaving a team and a fanbase that appreciates and respects him would be a difficult decision. The chance to win several more Stanley Cup also makes the choice to re-sign with Chicago a much easier one for Crawford.
Last season, the Blackhawks got a first-hand look at how valuable a reliable No. 1 goalie such as Crawford can be to a team's success. When the top stars struggled in the playoffs, including Kane and Toews, Crawford prevented Chicago from being eliminated by some quality opponents.
Since he's one of the most important players on the roster, re-signing Crawford before next year's free agency period opens must be Bowman's top priority.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, as well as the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.