What Does Jason LaBarbera Bring to the Chicago Blackhawks?

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What Does Jason LaBarbera Bring to the Chicago Blackhawks?
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Jason LaBarbera

The Chicago Blackhawks need alternatives in goal, and they have since the start of the season.

Shortly after they were done celebrating their Stanley Cup victory last June, it was clear that backup goalie Ray Emery was going to cash in on the sensational season that he had just enjoyed in 2013.

That was expected. When No. 2 goalies excel and have a chance to cash in, they do just that. Emery signed a one-year, $1.65 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, and the Blackhawks had to bring in a new No. 2 goalie.

Their choice of Nikolai Khabibulin was a strange one. While Khabibulin, 40, was a Stanley Cup-winning goalie in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he had been laboring in Edmonton for a non-contending team, and he no longer had the skills that made him an imposing presence.

The Blackhawks learned this every time they gave Khabibulin a chance to play. While he has appeared in just four games, he has a 5.00 goals against average and an .811 save percentage.

Khabibulin would eventually go on the injured list with a lower-body injury, and the Blackhawks called up Antti Raanta, 24, who has been dubbed their goaltender of the future.

When No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford suffered a lower-body injury of his own, the Blackhawks brought up Kent Simpson from their Rockford IceHogs farm team.

It's one thing to get by with a couple of unproven goaltenders in November and December, it's quite another thing to do the same thing in the home stretch of the season.

That appears to be the reason the Blackhawks acquired career backup Jason LaBarbera from the Edmonton Oilers last week.

LaBarbera, 33, has been a competent backup for the Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes, and he's also played for the New York Rangers, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. While the Blackhawks have assigned LaBarbera to Rockford, it seems likely that, when he is prepared to play regularly, he will get called up by the Blackhawks.

Raanta may upset those plans if he continues to play well. General manager Stan Bowman could decide to stick with Raanta as his backup once Crawford returns to the lineup.

However, that would be a tough decision to make. The Blackhawks are the defending champions and in a great position to make a run at another title.

One of the keys to being successful is having a healthy Crawford in net. If he is overworked, it's unlikely that he'll be at his best in the postseason. Emery played 21 games last year while Crawford played 30. Crawford was well-rested when the playoffs got underway because Emery was able to share the regular-season burden.

The Blackhawks can't make the mistake of overworking Crawford upon his return. Khabibulin demonstrated that he was simply not a viable alternative, and that's where LaBarbera comes into play.

He has a solid track record. LaBarbera had a 2.13 goals against average and a .928 save percentage in 2009-10 for the Coyotes while playing in 17 games. He was not as impressive the following year—3.26 GAA and .909 save percentage—but he was solid in 2011-12. LaBarbera played 19 games that season for the Coyotes and had a 2.54 GAA and a .912 save percentage.

After another solid year in 2013 in which he had a 2.64 and .923 save percentage, LaBarbera signed a free-agent contract with the Edmonton Oilers to serve as Devan Dubnyk's backup. The Oilers have not liked what they have gotten from Dubnyk this season, so they decided to turn to another goalie.

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While the logical move would have been turning the net duties over to LaBarbera, Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish signed veteran Ilya Bryzgalov.

That made LaBarbera expendable, and Bowman jumped at the opportunity.

No matter how well Raanta does, the Blackhawks probably don't want him in goal in March and April. A few bad performances in crucial games could ruin a young goalie, and that's not the path that Bowman needs to take.

The Blackhawks need to get LaBarbera up and have him get in some playing time before making him the team's No. 2 goalie when Crawford is healthy.

They need to say goodbye to Khabibulin, send Raanta and Simpson back to Rockford and go about the business of making a run at their second straight Stanley Cup and their third title in four years.

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