- Scott Powers, Reporter
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Offseason trade and free-agent rumors surrounding second-line centers are certainly more interesting than second-tier goaltenders, but acquiring the latter could also be important to the Chicago Blackhawks come next season.
The Blackhawks have their No. 1 goaltender in place in Corey Crawford and now their No. 2 after recently re-signing Antti Raanta. Beyond that, the organization is bare of NHL-ready goaltenders. Kent Simpson is the only other signed goaltender who has NHL experience, and he's played a total of 20 minutes.
The Blackhawks are hopeful they won't need anyone beside Crawford and Raanta next season, but that's unlikely. Only three teams -- the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and San Jose Sharks -- got away with playing just two goaltenders all of last season. The Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers each threw five different goaltenders in net during the regular season.
The Blackhawks have dealt with the reality of injuries at that position in the past two seasons. Nikolai Khabibulin played a total of four games last season before he was sidelined for the rest of the season. Crawford has missed games in each of the last two seasons due to injury. Henrik Karlsson was Crawford's backup in the first round of the playoffs in 2013 because Ray Emery was hurt.
Because the Blackhawks have their top-2 goaltenders set and likely will be tight with the cap, they're going to need to find someone who they can sign cheap on a two-way deal during free agency, which begins on Tuesday. That eliminates the likes of veterans Martin Brodeur and Tim Thomas. They're more likely to pursue goalies such as Mike McKenna, Drew MacIntyre, Joey MacDonald, Cedrick Desjardins and Yann Danis.
The Blackhawks were in an adequate spot with goaltenders in 2013. They had Karlsson and Carter Hutton on the depth chart after Crawford and Emery. But Hutton left the Blackhawks and started 35 games for the Nashville Predators this past season. Karlsson went overseas to play.
Khabibulin's season-ending injury this past season forced the Blackhawks to trade for Jason LaBarbera, who had some NHL experience and could be used in an emergency situation. LaBarbera is another option for the Blackhawks next season. He had a 2.94 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 32 games for the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs.
The Blackhawks would ideally have a prospect ready to make the NHL jump if needed, but their system doesn't have that player right now. The 22-year-old Simpson, a second-round pick in 2010, has been in the minors for the past two seasons and still needs time to develop. He had a 3.64 goals-against average and .891 save percentage in 31 games for the IceHogs last season. Mac Carruth, a seventh-round pick in 2010, spent most of last season in the ECHL.
"I thought Kent learned a lot of things this year," Blackhawks director of hockey administration and general manager of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard said recently. "We weren't always the best defensively in front of him. That's not easy on a goaltender. I think he really learned when Jason LaBarbera came in. That was kind of a protégé system. Kent's learning. He's getting better. I don't think he's at his ceiling.
"Kent played his first year in Toledo, and Mac did it this year. It's a grind the first year. We're not looking at [Carruth's] numbers, but if he's giving his team a chance to win a nightly basis."
The only other goaltenders in the Blackhawks' system are Matt Tomkins, a seventh-round pick in 2012, who will be a sophomore at Ohio State next season, and Ivan Nalimov, who they selected in the sixth round on Saturday. The Blackhawks opted this year not to sign Brandon Whitney, a seventh-round pick in 2012, who played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this past season.
The Blackhawks haven't had much luck drafting goaltenders in the past decade. Crawford and Simpson are the only Blackhawks' draft picks to appear in an NHL game since Crawford was drafted in 2003. The Blackhawks have drafted 11 goaltenders since 2003.
Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver talked earlier this year about the difficulty of drafting and developing goaltenders.
"We're certainly trying to develop goaltenders," Maciver said in March. "To draft a kid at 18, it's a very difficult position. Look at Crawford, he had five full years in the American League. It's not something that happens overnight. It's very difficult to draft goaltenders and hope for them to develop in 1-2 years. Most goaltenders in the NHL are past 25 years old. You have to be patient. Hopefully one of these guys becomes a good goaltender for us in the near future."
For now, the Blackhawks likely will have to find another one somewhere outside the organization.