This season will be critical for Crawford

Will the Blackhawks let another Cup-winning goalie in Corey Crawford walk after this season? AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has been one of goaltender Corey Crawford's biggest supporters.

Bowman continued to back Crawford when others were demanding a change in net. Bowman's confidence in Crawford paid off last season when Crawford played better than he ever had and helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup.

Crawford will be Bowman's and the Blackhawks' guy again this upcoming season, but his future is less certain. Bowman will have to answer two vital questions this season to determine that future. Is Crawford a top-10 goaltender? If so, can the Blackhawks afford to pay him as one?

What Crawford does this season should supply the answer to the first question. It's difficult to gauge whether Crawford, who will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, is one of the league's premier goaltenders.

Crawford was undoubtedly one during the 2013 season. He was tied for second in the league with a 1.94 goals-against average, tied for fifth with a .926 save percentage and was fifth with a 67.9 quality start percentage among goaltenders with at least 15 starts (a stat created by Hockey Prospectus to determine a goaltender's consistency). His 1.84 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in the playoffs were further proof of his stellar season.

One season, especially a lockout-shortened one, doesn't define a goaltender's worth, though. To dig deeper, let's look at Crawford's other seasons as a starter.

In the 2010-11 season, Crawford ranked seventh with a 2.30 goals-against average, 16th with a .917 save percentage and ninth with a 61.8 quality start percentage (minimum 40 games played). In the 2011-12 season, he was 32nd with a 2.72 goals-against average, tied for 35th with a .903 save percentage and 22nd with a 50.9 quality start percentage (minimum 40 starts).

Crawford's numbers have certainly fluctuated. He could have been argued as a top-15 goaltender during the 2010-11 season, but his performance declined the following season. His postseasons were similar to his regular seasons, too. He had a 2.21 goals-against average and .927 save percentage in seven games in the 2011 playoffs, and those numbers worsened to a 2.58 goals-against average and .893 save percentage in six games in the 2012 playoffs.

Crawford at his best has been among the league's best, and at his worst has been among the league's worst, which brings him and the Blackhawks to the upcoming season. The 2013-14 season will likely make or break whether he's considered an elite goaltender and whether he gets the contract that goes with it.

Crawford may return to his inconsistencies next season, which would lead to a lesser market value and another difficult decision for the Blackhawks in whether they want to invest in him in the future. But let's assume he has turned the corner. Last season was his third season as a starter, and he prepared and played with a focus he didn't possess in previous seasons. His consistency was at another level in 2013.

If Crawford's numbers this upcoming season are similar to last season's, a large payday and a lengthy contract are probably headed his way. He'll be 29 years old after next season and will likely be looking for a deal for five-plus years. To put him among the top 10 goalies in salary in the 2014-15 season, Crawford would have to make at least $6 million. To be among the top 15, he would have to make $3.75 million.

A number of goaltenders have recently signed the type of deal Crawford likely will be looking for after next season. Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith, at 31, signed a six-year deal worth around a $5.7 million a season in July. Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, at 29, received a six-year deal for around $5.3 million a season in April. Dallas Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen, 29, took a five-year deal for around $5.9 million a season in 2012. Nashville Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, 29, signed a seven-year deal at $7 million each season in 2011.

If Crawford's play proves him worthy of such a contract, Bowman must decide if he wants to -- or even can -- pay Crawford that much over a long-term deal. The Blackhawks were able to fine-tune their roster last season and again this offseason without having to worry too much about the league's $64.3 million salary cap. It won't be so easy in the future.

Before Bowman will give Crawford or any other player a bundle of money, Bowman must decide how it impacts re-signing Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews after the 2014-15 season. Both are averaging $6.3 million a season and likely will be looking to go up to at least $8 million in their next contracts.

Add the contracts of Kane and Toews with the already lengthy and pricey deals given to Brent Seabrook (signed through the 2015-16 season at a yearly cap hit of $5.8 million), Patrick Sharp (through 2016-17 at $5.9 million), Bryan Bickell (through 2016-17 at $4.0 million), Marian Hossa (through 2020-21 at $5.275 million) and Duncan Keith (through 2022-23 at $5.538) and the cap space shrinks quickly. Those seven players will fill about 65 percent of the team's cap space in the 2015-16 season.

The Blackhawks also have to assume Brandon Saad likely will demand a substantial bump when he becomes a restricted free agent after the 2014-15 season. There's also the the three-year contract prospect Teuvo Teravainen, who is being touted as a top-six forward, signed on Thursday.

Bowman's plan is to start to filling around his expensive stars with players from the farm system. Players such as Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Ben Smith, Jimmy Hayes, Drew LeBlanc, Phillip Danault, Mark McNeil, Adam Clendening, Ryan Stanton and Stephen Johns will all get opportunities to prove themselves in the NHL in the upcoming years.

The Blackhawks haven't been as fortunate to create that kind of depth in their system at goaltender. Since drafting Crawford in the second round in 2003, the Blackhawks have selected nine other goaltenders and none has appeared in the NHL yet. Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth, both 21, are the closest draft picks to getting there, but they're probably still a few years away.

If Crawford and the Blackhawks were to part ways after this season, the Blackhawks' Plan B would likely be Antti Raanta. The 24-year-old Raanta signed a one-year deal in June after dominating Finland's SM-liiga last season. If he can make a smooth transition to North American hockey, Bowman may have a cheaper option and his goaltender of the future in Raanta. He'll be a restricted free agent after this season.

Bowman has faced a tough decision at goaltender before during his brief time as general manager. After helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2010, restricted free-agent goaltender Antti Niemi had his salary set at $2.75 million by an arbitrator. The Blackhawks were already nearing the salary cap, and Bowman opted not to re-sign Niemi.

Niemi's departure led to Crawford getting his shot in net the following season, and that worked out for the Blackhawks. Will they have to walk away from another Cup-winning goaltender after next season, or will Crawford be around for years to come?