Heading into this season, I figured there were two teams that were in the running for the candidate of the worst offseason performance in the area of goaltending: Philadelphia and Chicago. The Flyers earned that nomination for their continued pursuit of the cheap goaltending tandem that rarely seems to work out for them, betting on Steve Mason and Ray Emery. The Blackhawks would appear to be a less likely candidate for such a dubious honour, given that they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they gave Corey Crawford a surprisingly expensive long-term extension (6 years, $36 million) and elected to sign the 40-year Nikolai Khabibulin as their backup goalie.
(Note: In a complete vacuum the Calgary Flames would probably win in this category because of their decision to ride Kerri Ramo and Joey MacDonald this year, but I'm giving them a pass because I figure that management was pretty blatantly looking to tank the season. I'm also not ready to write off Devan Dubnyk just yet, which is why the Oilers aren't discussed further here. The other team that seems to be taking on some risk in net is the New York Islanders and their continued reliance on Evgeni Nabokov, but he had a pretty strong season last year so at the moment they seem to be fine).
Obviously it's very early, and it's not a good idea to make too much of early returns because there is plenty of season remaining, but at the same time an evaluation of decision-making should not be entirely based on hindsight either. While I'm far from a full believer in Steve Mason just yet, he has looked good enough to raise the possibility that he may have turned a corner in his career, which is enough for me to vault Chicago into the lead in the category.
Khabibulin was shredded last night by the Ottawa Senators and is off to an atrocious start (.818 in 3 GP). The risk of signing 40-year olds is that they are prone to suddenly losing a step and falling off a cliff, and while it's far too early to make that pronouncement with a high degree of confidence, he simply looks terrible in the net right now. Even if he was playing at a typical level for someone his age, it's very likely that he would be at replacement level or worse. All in all, even just a one year contract at $2 million for Khabi seems to be a very poor bet by the Blackhawks.
I'm not a big believer in Corey Crawford, I think it is very possible he had a career year last year on a great team. To my eyes, his playoff run was more impressive statistically than visually, and was buoyed by an unsustainably high PK save percentage. I'm still unconvinced Crawford is anything better than league average, but even if you think he is worth $6 million a year right now, the problem is that he is already 29. It might seem odd to say it, given that he only has 163 NHL games under his belt, but Crawford is very possibly already past his prime. History generally shows that you usually need to be an elite talent to maintain an above-average level of performance through your mid-thirties. Crawford is certainly not an elite talent, and as such the smart money would seem to be that he probably will not be able to maintain above-average play through the age of 35.
Extending Crawford at that pay scale was a curious move for the Blackhawks, a team that was once one of the trailblazers in pursuing the cheap goalie strategy. They dumped Antti Niemi right after a Stanley Cup win (which given Niemi's recent performance looks worse in hindsight than it did at the time), and since then have been relying on cheaper tandem options. It's possible that the team's strategy back then was largely influenced by the very poor results they reaped from big-money deals to Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet shortly after the 2005 lockout, and perhaps those memories have now faded enough in the rear view mirror that Chicago is ready to get on board with the long-term goalie contract trend currently sweeping the league.
The Blackhawks did make at least one positive move this summer by inking Finnish league standout Antti Raanta to a pro contract. After missing some a few games because of injury, Raanta is off to a strong start at the AHL level. At the age of 24, Raanta has already dominated a lower league, winning nearly all the awards he could win last season in Finland. Finland is a goalie factory and even though many have already migrated over here to ply their trade in the NHL it is no small task to be named the best netminder there. There are plenty of recent examples of European goalies who have been able to step right into the North American game and excel. Chicago was likely assuming it would be better for development purposes to have Raanta prove himself at the pro level in North America for a season first before relying on him with the big club, but I would bet on a 24-year old Euro league standout any day over a 40-year old NHL journeyman.
Even with average goaltending Chicago is a Stanley Cup contender. However, a big reason they won the President's Trophy last year going away was that they were 17-1-0 with their backup goalie in net. If Crawford comes back down to earth and Khabibulin continues to struggle, the Blackhawks will be remain a top contender but will probably not be able to separate themselves from the pack as thoroughly as they did last season in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.