As a hockey fan, one is often bombarded with the thoughts and opinions of fans of other teams. But even among fellow Blackhawk fans, there is one subject that is more polarizing than any other. The wick that lights this argument-bomb goes thusly: Is Corey Crawford an elite goaltender?
Among the kool-aid sipping demographic, the answer is simple: he’s Chicago’s goaltender, (who’s won them two cups), so yes is the only answer their brains will allow them to submit. Then there’s the “Crawford haters,” fans of the Hawks (and of course, other teams as well) who seem to believe that the Hawks would be better off with literally any other person between the pipes.
I don’t find myself in either demographic, and when I think about where Corey Crawford’s goalie reputation should be, even as a Hawks fan I find myself struggling to come up with a definitive answer. Everyone’s definition of an “elite” goaltender can be determined by a seemingly infinite number of factors, so it’s best to just assume that when we say “elite”, in our own minds we are talking about the best goalies in the world.
So where does Crawford fall? First things first: numbers check. This is where “elite” goes out the window for most, especially those I have dubbed “Crawford Haters.” Career – 268 games started, 147 -79 – 34, .917 Sv%, 2.34 GAA, 12 SOs. Career highs – 59 starts in 2013-2014, 33 wins in 2010-2011, .926 Sv% in the shortened 2012-2013 with a 1.94 GAA the same year (NHL.com). Certainly not bad numbers. Certainly nothing eye-popping either. So who exactly is elite, and what determines that status?
The names that roll off of most hockey fans tongues when discussing elite goalkeeping would be Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, and Jonathan Quick so we’ll just roll with those three for the sake of this discussion. The one thing that jumps out to me about those 3 names is consistency over time. All three have been at or near the top of the league for at least five years. While Crawford has been good for five seasons, he has never been nominated for a Vezina trophy, while the other three respectively named goaltenders have been nominated and Lundqvist and Price have won once. Crawford did share a Jennings Trophy with Ray Emery for least goals given up in the 2012-2013 shortened season, and finished second in total goals this year to the Canadiens and Carey Price.
So if Quick is considered elite, why not Crawford? Both have two Cup rings weighing down their right hands. Quick has been nominated for one Vezina and has won just as many as Crawford. Quick even has comparable numbers to Crawford over his career. So why do so many have such a high opinion of Quick and so down on Crawford? The answer in my book: The eye test. Quick carried his team to a Stanley Cup. While Crawford has been excellent in both of his Cup winning runs, to the point of being a Conn Smythe candidate, (many argue he should have won the Conn Smythe in 2013) he didn’t completely steal any games with the exception of maybe one or two. Those performances were also not in the Cup final, (with the arguable exception of game six against the Lightning this year.) Another fact that gets forgotten by both sides is that Crawford got a late start. While his NHL debut was on 1/22/06, he didn’t become the Hawks regular starter until midway through the 10-11 season where he supplanted then starter Marty Turco, at age 26. Not exactly setting the hockey world on fire with his hype. The Blackhawks being such a strong team for the past 8 or so years also hurts his reputation. The Hawks have been successful with such backstops as Cristobal Huet, an aged Nikolai Khabibulin, the aforementioned Marty Turco, a rejuvenated but still aged Ray Emery, and won a Cup with Antti Niemi, who is a solid, but by no means elite, goaltender. This is where my experience as a card carrying Hawks fan who only misses maybe handful of games a season comes in handy.
Crawford has been subjected to my own personal eye test hundreds of times. I do not believe he’s elite. If elite was referring to the top ten best goalies, then maybe I would have him as elite, but not among the 3 – 5 goalies at any one given time that are considered elite. That being said, there is no denying his ability. He has stolen games for the Hawks. He has kept their bacon out of the fryer while they worked on coming back from 2 and 3 goal deficits. Mentally, I believe him to be one of the most solid goaltenders in the league, which some might not agree with, because he is an emotional guy. He gets mad at himself. He gets visibly upset out on the ice. But I can’t personally think of one situation where he cost the Blackhawks a game because of antics due to anger or frustration. (Which certainly doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, but I can guarantee the number of games that it may have happened in is miniscule.
Then there’s his performance in this year’s playoffs. How many goaltenders in this league could be unseated in the first game of the first series in the playoffs, see your backup have immediate success, and then late in the series get the call to keep them in a game when the backup Scott Darling had a hiccup, and keep the other team out of the net to helm a series winning comeback victory? I don’t know the answer to that question, but Crawford did it. And oh by the way went on to win the Cup as well. Whether you are a Hawks fan or not, whether you believe Crawford is elite or not, there is no way to deny that Crawford is a great goalie in this league.