While the Chicago Blackhawks
won't have the opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup this spring, the emergence of rookie goalie Corey Crawford
was quite the bright spot for a team that will be in good position to make an even stronger push for the big prize next season.
The Blackhawks made sure Crawford would be a part of that plan by signing the 26-year-old goalie to a three-year contract Thursday that is reportedly worth $8 million.
"It was a top priority for us to sign Corey and I can say I was confident all along that we'd get him signed," Chicago Vice-President/General Manager Stan Bowman said. "We had discussions with his agent and we wanted him back and, when that's the case, these deals get done. He made it clear he wanted to remain a Blackhawk."
According to ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun, Crawford will earn $3.25 million next season, $2.25 million in 2012-13 and $2.5 million in 2013-14. He would become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2014.
The new contract confirms what many already knew -- that Crawford will enter the 2011-12 campaign as the starting goalie.
"The new deal won't change my off-season preparation," Crawford said. "I'll try and be in the best shape that I can be … get stronger and quicker. There may be a different mental approach going into the season, but I still have to prove to them that I'm the guy. The work doesn't end here, it only gets harder. That's how I'm approaching it."
Crawford led rookie goaltenders this season with 33 wins (33-18-6), tied for the rookie lead with four shutouts and ranked eighth among all NHL goalies with a 2.30 goals-against average.
He ratcheted up his play when it counted most, however, during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite entering this postseason against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks
with only 16 minutes of playoff experience, he'd take the Presidents' Trophy winners to the limit in the Western Conference quarterfinal round. He'd lead all first-year goalies with a 2.21 GAA and .927 save percentage in a thrilling seven-game series.
"Corey's playoff performance was an exclamation point on his great season," Bowman said. "He started so many games for us down the stretch when we were fighting to get into the playoffs (as the No. 8 seed) and he gave us a chance to win. Corey had a great playoff for us and that's not easy to do as a first-year goalie, but he did it."
Crawford admitted he's having a difficult time watching the playoffs now that his team is out of the mix.
"It's hard to watch because whenever you watch it, you want to be there and we came so close," he said. "Game 7 could have went our way and I thought we played hard and fought back hard to get to Game 7. We showed a lot of grit, determination and character. If we won the first couple of games, maybe it would have been different."
Following a 36-save, 2-1 overtime setback to the Canucks in Game 7, Crawford's 34th consecutive start, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews
had nothing but praise for his goalie.
"He was a warrior out there, he battled just as hard as anybody," Toews told reporters after the game. "Everyone wants to talk about (Roberto) Luongo all the time and the superstars, but for a rookie goalie he was amazing. I can't say enough about him."
"The new deal won't change my off-season preparation. I'll try and be in the best shape that I can be … get stronger and quicker. There may be a different mental approach going into the season, but I still have to prove to them that I'm the guy. The work doesn't end here, it only gets harder." -- Corey Crawford
The Canucks opened a 3-0 series lead before the Blackhawks stormed back behind the goaltending of Crawford to even it up.
After yielding the game-winning goal to Alexandre Burrows
5:22 into the extra period, Crawford was surrounded by teammates who did their best to console the rookie.
"The experience of the playoffs was huge," Crawford said. "I find the more experience I get, the better off. I feel lucky to get those games and the coaches had the confidence in me to get them toward the end. All of that counts for the future … being in that atmosphere of the playoffs."
The Montreal native became the second Blackhawks goaltender since 1994 to reach the 30-win plateau. He tied a franchise rookie record established in 1963 with eight consecutive wins in February and March and earned the victory in seven consecutive starts in November and December.
Crawford compiled a 176:09 shutout streak in January, the longest by a Chicago netminder since Tony Esposito
in 1972, and turned aside 16 of 19 shootout attempts during the season, including all eight he faced at the United Center.
Bowman wouldn't tip his hand when asked if veteran Marty Turco
, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, was still in Chicago's plans.
"We have a meeting with every player at end of season and Marty is still interesting in playing hockey," Bowman said. "We didn't talk in relation to his plans, but he wants to play for us. As the year went on, it was clear Corey was the go-to guy and he earned the right to be our No. 1 goalie. I don't want to anoint people because you have to do the work. But once Corey earned that opportunity, he earned more time in the net and ended up being a very important part of the team.
"We've got a good idea of where the (salary) cap will be and we're still going to make some changes. Not wholesale, but we need some new faces."
A 2003 second-round pick (No. 52), Crawford is 34-21-12 with a 2.33 GAA and .917 save percentage in 65 regular-season games since making his NHL debut with the Blackhawks in 2005-06. The 2010-11 season, however, was his first full NHL campaign.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale