Chicago Blackhawks' Best Options to Replace Struggling Nikolai Khabibulin

Franklin Steele@FranklinSteeleAnalyst IINovember 8, 2013

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 11: Nikolai Khabibulin #39 of the Chicago Blackhawks makes a glove save against the New York Islanders at the United Center on October 11, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Corey Crawford is on pace to play 74 games this season for the Chicago Blackhawks. That's a truly unsustainable number, and the top concern for the 'Hawks right now should be securing a strong backup to get Crawford some much-needed time off.

Nikolai Khabibulin has been awful in his limited action so far for Chicago, and it's forced the team to turn to Crawford more than they would like to.

Ray Emery started 19 games for Chicago last season and was spectacular while giving Crawford enough rest to keep him fresh to make a run at the Stanley Cup. He only played in 30 games before the first round, meaning that he was more or less in middle-of-the-season shape when Chicago took on the Minnesota Wild in Round 1.

There's no lockout-shortened season to prevent Chicago's tried and true starter from becoming the tired and true starter this year, though, and the team needs to seriously consider upgrading in net prior to the Olympic break. Options are plentiful at this juncture, but it's just a matter of how the 'Hawks want to play things.

Aside from one of these options, these names are just speculation at this point.

SUNRISE, FL - OCTOBER 19: Goaltender Tim Thomas #34 of the Florida Panthers outside the dressing room prior to the start of the game against the Minnesota Wild at the BB&T Center on October 19, 2013 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI v
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Tim Thomas

Resting Crawford is worth giving up assets for. It's not an option—a fresh starter is a necessary element to a Stanley Cup-caliber team. With that in mind, Chicago could kick some tires around the NHL down the stretch to find some help in net.

One of the more interesting names that could be in play is Tim Thomas of the Florida Panthers. He's been an injury risk so far in 2013-14, but that's because Florida was trying to ice him as a legitimate No. 1 goalie. Thomas isn't that any more. Not at the age of 39.

The man is a warrior, though, and his level of competitiveness dwarfs that of Khabibulin. It may seem silly to replace one aging veteran with another, but these aren't two equal parts here. A trade to a positive situation in Chicago could light a fire under Thomas, who has a tendency to settle in and dominate through long stretches.

Could Crawford end up with two or three games off in a row with Thomas tearing it up? You bet. Is Khabibulin going to provide that same sort of stability at any point this year? It doesn't seem likely.

Depending on what Florida is asking for in return, Thomas could be worth looking into.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31: Goalie Ryan Miller #30 of the Buffalo Sabres bangs his fist on the goal after giving up a goal to the New York Rangers during the second period of an NHL hockey game at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 2013 in New York City.
Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

Ryan Miller

Before flipping out and casting this thought off immediately, know that this suggestion is purely situational. A few things would need to play out for Miller to be a viable option, and by the time Chicago needs him, he might have already been moved anyway.

Still, what if Crawford sustains some sort of long-term injury? Look at how far teams like the Carolina Hurricanes have fallen while struggling to replace a workhorse No. 1. If the 'Hawks didn't want to go that same route (down), then they might be forced to make a move for a suitable backup plan.

Once Crawford returns, he'd form one of the top (if not the top) tandem in the league alongside Miller. It's highly unlikely that the current Buffalo Sabre would have any reason to stick around for longer than a playoff run, but it's been a long while since this guy put on the pads for a legitimate contender.

The second circumstance that could see the 'Hawks make a call about Miller: staying the course they're on now. If they continue to try and get some good starts out of Khabibulin, the Blackhawks will notice he just hasn't found his way by the 55th or 60th game of the season.

If the chips fall that way, that likely would mean that Crawford would have taken on too heavy of a workload and would need some rest. Bringing in Miller could provide exactly the kind of relief that the team would be looking for.

It's a long shot, but not totally implausible.

Antti Raanta

This could very well be Chicago's preferred option if Khabibulin continues to falter. Antti Raanta has been very solid for the Rockford IceHogs, posting a 5-4 record during his first season of professional play in North America.

There are a few strikes against Raanta at this point, however.

While he's been solid in the minors, he hasn't exactly been crushing it, either. Reto Berra was posting very similar numbers prior to being recalled by the Calgary Flames. Despite his outstanding initial start against the 'Hawks, he's been shelled in his last two outings.

It's getting shelled that Chicago is trying to avoid at this point, so perhaps letting Raanta gain valuable playing time and experience in Rockford will be more beneficial to the 24-year-old in both the long and the short term.

Chicago needs a solid veteran option to back up Crawford, and Raanta may not be the immediate answer.

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 1: Goaltender Brian Elliott #1 of the St Louis Blues cools off during a break in the action against the Florida Panthers at the BB&T Center on November 1, 2013 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

Brian Elliott

Another player with an expiring contract, Brian Elliott is both affordable ($1.8 million left on his deal, not prorated) and outstanding. He's seeing very limited time for the St. Louis Blues right now and could be available for the proper price.

It's tough to imagine these two Central Division rivals helping each other out in any way, shape or form, though. If the two squads can see beyond the fact that they could face each other in the Western Conference Final, then Elliott could be a good fit actually.

He's proven his mettle as both a starter and a backup and has been able to come off the bench in St. Louis and perform very well in spotty starts behind Jaroslav Halak.

Again, except for Raanta, this is just speculation on our part. One way or the other, the Blackhawks need to figure out who is best suited to backup Crawford. A few solid starts from Khabibulin could go a long way toward putting this chatter to rest, but right now it seems like the 'Hawks are timid to even give him a spot start here and there to iron out his game.

That's not a good sign or a vote of confidence moving forward, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Chicago make a move to shore up this must-have position.


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