Having just inked a six-year, $36 million dollar extension, Corey Crawford’s certainly about to be paid like an elite goalie. But before we answer the article’s question, we need to decide what it means to be an elite goalie.
In my opinion, an elite goalie must be outstanding in three areas: achievement, concentration and ability. Recent performance is also important (sorry, Roberto Luongo, Tim Thomas and Ryan Miller).
By my estimation, there are four elite goaltenders in the NHL right now: Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi.
Does Corey Crawford belong in their class?
Only Stanley Cup winners, Olympic gold medalists, Vezina finalists or NHL All-Stars (First or Second-Team) need apply:
Corey Crawford, with his sparkling .932 save percentage and 1.84 goals-against average in last year’s title-winning turn, certainly belongs.
And for the still-sizable group of pundits who consider the Chicago netminder just a system goalie, 2013 Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane has this message for you:
Simply put, the Blackhawks don’t hoist the Cup without Crawford making big save after big save.
The starting goaltender’s ability to perform consistently, while carrying the physical and mental burden of being the team’s last line of defense through most of 82 games, is a truly special skill.
Sergei Bobrovsky fell short of the elite class because his 2013 Vezina came during a shortened season. Crawford, on the hand, put together a very solid 2010-11 campaign, coming in sixth in the league with 33 wins and seventh with a 2.30 GAA.
While he suffered from a less than stellar campaign the next year, he’s proven capable of handling the stress of being the man in the regular season.
It takes another level of concentration to be able to focus in the white-hot gaze of the postseason.
Crawford also had the unique pressure of leading a Presidents' Trophy-winning squad that started the season with a record-breaking 24 games without a loss. That record and trophy would’ve lost significance without the legitimacy of a championship to cap off the season.
Most importantly, he fought back from an embarrassing Game 4 effort in the Stanley Cup Final.
After an outing during which he gave up a number of stoppable goals, he saved 47 of 50 shots in the next two games to clinch the championship.
Besides the Olympic medal round, there isn't a more intense pressure in hockey than what's encountered in the Stanley Cup Final. As such, Crawford's focus is indeed elite.
This category, of course, is more or less an eyeball test of ability, which includes athleticism and technique. NHL.com goaltending guru Kevin Woodley gushed over Lundqvist, Quick and Rinne’s ability in a recent poll.
Ignoring Niemi, since this article isn’t about him, there are key questions about Crawford’s ability. The SCF spotlighted his glove-hand troubles and there were entire articles written about the issue.
While Crawford replied to the doubts with his engraved name on the Cup, they still dog him into the coming season. Besides his glove hand, he's certainly not considered the most athletic of goalies anyway.
This is where he falls short of elite and will continue to do so. At 28 years old, he’s not likely to get much more athletic either.
Crawford is not an elite goalie. However, he’s a very good one with a special mental toughness. The question of, “Will he get better?” has become somewhat irrelevant because what’s better than a Stanley Cup? He’s certainly good enough.
Over the life of his extension, I expect Crawford to consistently keep the Blackhawks around the top of the Western Conference. Elite or not, that’s money well spent.