Chicago Blackhawks rookie goalie Antti Raanta has had himself quite a run in relief of an injured Corey Crawford. With Chicago's starting goalie nearing a return to the lineup, the 'Hawks are going to have to decide where the 24-year-old Raanta will continue his development.
Don't be terribly surprised if the team opts to send the Finnish folk hero to Rockford next week.
You can champion Raanta's monster effort in his shutout of the Los Angeles Kings Monday night. You can correctly point out that his play was key in the Blackhawks' 8-2-3 December.
I also don't need to have it pointed out to me that Raanta has won the fans over with his attitude and personality. I saw that in Rockford when he was winning over the faithful at the BMO Harris Bank Center at the beginning of the season.
Just the same, Rockford is probably the best place for Raanta to play when Crawford returns to patrol the crease.
ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers reported earlier this week that Crawford will likely play on Chicago's upcoming eastern road trip. If all goes well at practice, coach Joel Quenneville expects to use Crawford against either the Islanders Thursday or the Devils Friday.
I wouldn't rule out seeing Raanta in either or both of those games. However, if Crawford is healthy and ready to assume the starter's workload, Raanta is looking at two options:
1. Taking a seat on the Blackhawks' bench.
2. Being the starter in Rockford.
I am not ignoring Raanta's 10-1-3 mark as the starter. Just like Ray Emery's 17-1 record last season, Raanta has been fantastic in lieu of Crawford. However, just like last year, there is no doubt that Crawford is the starting goalie for the Blackhawks.
Quenneville had no problem using Crawford in the bulk of Chicago's games before he went down and I am sure that will continue to be the case. If Crawford is healthy, then he will probably start at least a dozen of the 'Hawks' 14 January contests.
In that situation, I believe that the team will opt to hand those starts to recently acquired backup Jason LaBarbera. It's a role he knows well, unlike injured backup Nikolai Khabibulin and Raanta, who has posted a 2.21 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
He has proven to be an athletic netminder who shows a lot of joy and flair in net. However, there are still facets of Raanta's game that need fine-tuning.
Raanta's positioning is still an issue that NHL teams will exploit in the long term. He is better-served going to Rockford and honing his game. With this test run through the league, Raanta will surely have a decent-sized list of things on which he can work.
I certainly feel that any malady that causes Crawford to miss more than a start or two would be cause to recall Raanta. If all there is for the backup is spot starts once every 10 days or so, I think Raanta is better off in the AHL.
Kudos to Raanta, who has gotten his North American hockey career off to a great start. I'm sure we will see him in a 'Hawks sweater down the road.
That said, his need for further development makes it likely that he will be toiling in Rockford. At least for a while.