It's amazing how one phenomenal season impacts a player's value to an NHL team.
Just a year after being the scapegoat from the Chicago Blackhawks' disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Coyotes, Corey Crawford is now a $6 million man following a Stanley Cup championship in the 2013 campaign.
Sportsnet reported on Monday that his new extension is worth $36 million over six seasons.
The Blackhawks surprisingly gave Crawford a huge long-term contract despite his small sample size as a successful starting goaltender in the NHL. It was an incredibly bold move by general manager Stan Bowman, because even though the 28-year-old was excellent during the championship run, he's never put together consecutive seasons of stellar play.
The Blackhawks decided against splashing the cash to re-sign their No. 1 goaltender Antti Niemi when they won the Stanley Cup in 2010. This proved to be a mistake because goaltending was an issue for the team over the next two seasons and Niemi ended up becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist for the San Jose Sharks.
The pressure on Crawford to maintain an elite level of performance will be a new challenge for him in 2013-14. What must he do to fully warrant his new contract and make Bowman look like a genius?
Let's look at a blueprint for success.
Performing at a high level on a consistent basis is the hallmark of all elite goaltenders. Consistency from the most important position on the ice helps teams win games when its offense fails to score at a high rate.
To his credit, Crawford was amazingly consistent in 2013. The Quebec native never lost more than two straight games in regulation, and the Blackhawks took points from 24 of the 29 games he started. He also allowed two or fewer goals in 16 of his 29 starts.
This is the kind of consistency that the Blackhawks will expect from him over the next six years. Crawford became mentally tougher last year and didn't allow bad goals or poor performances to impact the next period or the next game.
Crawford has never finished an 82-game season with a save percentage higher than .917 and a sub-2.30 GAA. As the chart below shows, his performance as a starting goalie at the NHL level has been a roller coaster.
Without a backup of Ray Emery's caliber to give him plenty of rest during the regular season, Crawford will likely need to play 50-60 games for the Blackhawks in 2013-14. Playing at a high level with less rest is going to be a challenge for Crawford, and it's one he must meet for Chicago to be successful.
Steady in the Playoffs
Let's face it, Crawford doesn't need to be a top-five NHL goalie for the Blackhawks to contend for the Stanley Cup.
A bend-but-don't-break performance is good enough for Chicago because this team puts a talented and deep group of defensemen in front of Crawford each game, in addition to one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league.
When your team finishes second in goals scored, third in penalty-killing percentage and features stars such as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson on the blue line, it doesn't require Vezina Trophy-caliber play to win playoff games. Chris Osgood was never an elite goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings, but he played well enough to help the team win Stanley Cups by not making costly mistakes in big games. Crawford is the same type of goalie.
The 28-year-old won't have to steal many postseason games for the Blackhawks, but he does need to make the important late-game saves when his team cannot afford a mistake from its goaltender. This is what he did during Chicago's Stanley Cup run last year, and it's why he got paid on Monday.
Improve the Glove Hand
A lot of criticism was directed at Crawford's glove hand during the 2013 playoffs.
After all, he allowed 12 goals glove side during the Stanley Cup Final against the Bruins alone, including 11 that beat him high-glove. At one point, 10 of the first 12 goals that Boston scored were glove side.
Most goalies have issues glove side, even the best ones. The goal for Crawford is to not allow any struggles glove side to become a mental problem that deteriorates his confidence. To his credit, Crawford prevented the criticism of his glove to negatively impact him against the Bruins.
If Crawford is able to improve his glove, he will soon join the upper echelon of NHL goaltenders.
Play the Puck Better
Puck-handling is one part of Crawford's game that needs to be improved before his name is mentioned among the league's best goaltenders.
He's athletic enough to skate to pucks quickly and deliver accurate passes up ice, but he needs to make faster decisions and not panic.
When a goalie freezes, the opposing forecheck will create turnovers that often lead to quality scoring chances. A good example of this was the Los Angeles Kings' first goal of the 2013 Western Conference Final (see video above).
The Blackhawks are fortunate to have an impressive group of mobile, puck-moving defensemen. This allows Crawford to stay in his net and not have to play the puck often, but if he can improve this part of his skill set, the 28-year-old will take his talents to another level.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft.
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