Goaltending is often the key factor for any team in a given regular season, playoff series or game in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Chicago Blackhawks have twice been the beneficiary of some outstanding and clutch goaltending performances in the past five years. They won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013, and goaltenders Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford played pivotal roles in winning those championships.
However, the Blackhawks are known for their outstanding skills and ability to maintain puck possession.
When Niemi was due a new contract after the 2010 championship, general manager Stan Bowman and Blackhawks ownership determined that he was not worth the kind of money the Blackhawks would have to pay him, and they let him become a free agent.
Niemi earned $826,500 in 2009-10, per CapGeek.com, but that figure jumped to $2 million the following year with the San Jose Sharks. Niemi later signed a four-year, $15.2 million with the Sharks, and it's difficult to say that he has been worth the money because the Sharks have consistently suffered postseason disappointments.
In contrast, the Blackhawks had no trouble coming to the conclusion that Crawford was worth a big investment. After the 2013 Stanley Cup championship, he signed a six-year, $36 million contract extension with Chicago.
That means Crawford, 29, will serve as the team's No. 1 goalie for the foreseeable future. While he has a history of clutch performances in big games, he lacks the overall consistency in his game that would make him an elite NHL goalie.
Crawford had a 2.26 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage in the 2013-14 regular season, along with two shutouts. While those numbers were good, he ranked ninth in goals against among goaltenders who played 25 or more games.
Crawford had a disturbing problem of allowing one stoppable goal in nearly every game, and that often left fans unsatisfied with his performance. Chicago fans let the goalie know they were upset by calling sports talk radio shows and posting less-than-complimentary remarks on social websites.
Crawford is not going anywhere, though, despite the local fans' reaction. His future is secure in Chicago, but the backup goaltending situation is not.
Antti Raanta was called up from the Blackhawks' American Hockey League minor league affiliate in Rockford, Illinois, after veteran backup Nikolai Khabibulin got injured early in the season. Raanta, 25, had spent his career in Europe prior to coming to North America this year. He played just 14 games for the IceHogs before he joined the Blackhawks.
Raanta did a fine job while filling in for Crawford. He played 25 games for the Blackhawks, and the team compiled a 13-5-4 record when he was in net. He had a 2.71 GAA and an .897 save percentage.
Raanta would appear to fit the bill as the Blackhawks' backup goalie for the future, except that he will be a restricted free agent in July. He earned a salary of $925,000 and a performance bonus for $475,000 last season.
Raanta told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times (h/t James O'Brien of Pro Hockey Talk) that he would like to remain with the team, but his contract situation has not been addressed yet. The Blackhawks may not want to pay him any more than they paid him last year given the amount Crawford is earning. Raanta could choose to return to his native Finland—or play elsewhere in Europe—if he determines that he is not getting a fair offer from the team.
Khabibulin would not appear to be a realistic option for the Blackhawks.
Prior to suffering a shoulder injury that limited him to four games last season, the 41-year-old did not perform well. He had a 5.00 GAA and a .811 save percentage. While four games is not a decent sample size, Khabibulin seemed indecisive and slow. He's also a free agent, and it's difficult to see the Blackhawks making him a legitimate offer.
Untested goaltenders Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth are also in the Blackhawks' system.
Simpson, 22, played 31 games for Rockford this season and had a 3.64 GAA and an .891 save percentage. He was called up to the Blackhawks and saw action in one game, allowing two goals in one period before being sent back down to Rockford. Simpson may need a bit more season before he is ready to play in the NHL.
Carruth, 22, played for three minor league teams last season, including Rockford. He had a 3.36 GAA with the IceHogs and an .880 save percentage. He is scheduled to play the 2014-15 season with Rockford.
Since Raanta has said that he wants to play with the Blackhawks, perhaps a deal for short money can be worked out. However, if he changes his mind and decides to play overseas, the Blackhawks would be in the market for a new backup goalie.
That would not be a disaster, but it would be one more headache for Bowman and Joel Quenneville that they don't need as they head into the offseason.