Anthony Lyen, Contributor
The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the deepest teams in the NHL, thanks to solid acquisitions and drafting on behalf of general manager Stan Bowman. Even though the organization has a rich pool of talented offensive and defensive prospects, however, one position stands out as weaker than the others: goaltending.
There is a silver lining, however. And his name is Antti Raanta.
The 24-year-old signed with the Blackhawks on June 3. The signing provided a bit of optimism following the departure of unrestricted free agent Ray Emery, who joined the Philadelphia Flyers. Raanta put up some impressive numbers with Assat Pori of SM-liiga (Finland). The netminder posted a 21-10-11 record, with a 1.85 GAA and a .943 save percentage. He also earned the title of MVP for the regular season as well as the playoffs.
Upon signing Raanta, however, there was a concern about playing him in the NHL right away. After all, the Rauma, Finland native never played hockey in North America before, which believe it or not, makes a big difference. Knowing this, Bowman made sure to have Raanta get some much needed experience with the Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ minor league affiliate.
Bowman went with a more experienced goaltender to back-up Hawks starter Corey Crawford, who was sensational during Chicago’s historic Stanley Cup-winning season. In order to provide that veteran presence, Bowman inked former-Blackhawk Nikolai Khabibulin to a one-year contract, just like Raanta.
Khabibulin’s return to the Windy City, however, has been an unimpressive – and rather unwelcome – homecoming. The 40-year-old “Bulin Wall” is starting to play like…well, a 40-year-old. Khabibulin’s lack of success (although he is 1-0-1, Khabibulin has a .811 save percentage with a 5.00 GAA) has required Crawford to start more games than originally planned.
Khabibulin was eventually injured in a game versus the Phoenix Coyotes on Nov. 16, leaving him out of the lineup for some time.
Raanta got the call up from Rockford the next day, finally earning his chance to compete in the NHL.
And he didn’t disappoint.
Raanta made his debut in relief of Crawford on Nov. 19 against the Colorado Avalanche, stopping 14 of 16 shots faced. He would eventually get his first NHL start against the Calgary Flames, earning the “W” in a 3–2 win. He went on to win his second NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes, once again only allowing two goals and boasting a .941 save percentage.
Posting some solid numbers in his first few NHL outings, Raanta appears to be the real deal. He’s quick and agile in net, and he seems to show plenty of poise and confidence. Are there a few areas in need of some improvement? Absolutely, but being only 24-years-old, the young goaltender has plenty of time to learn.
The Blackhawks have two potentially promising young prospect goaltenders in the system in Mac Carruth and Kent Simpson. The duo is currently struggling in Rockford, but each year builds experience, so we may have a better picture of the two netminders in a few years.
Nonetheless, Raanta may be not only a solid backup goaltender, but he may have the ability to be a decent starter as well.
Last season, the Blackhawks had the fortune of not really having a starting goalie and backup goalie. With the impressive play Crawford and Emery displayed throughout the season, it was more of a 1A, 1B situation. This allowed the goaltenders to take turns starting in net, letting the other member of the goaltending tandem get a night off to rest.
Raanta certainly has the potential to be a number one goalie in the NHL, but as long as Crawford wears the Indian Head Sweater – and doesn’t falter whilst wearing it – then a 1A, 1B situation is the most likely scenario.
This isn’t a problem, though.
Crawford, 28, and Raanta are both young, so it’s rather exciting to know these two could potentially be the Blackhawks’ goaltenders for the next ten years, depending on how they perform. The Hawks haven’t necessarily had stable goaltending over the past few years. Since the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, eight goaltenders have played at least a game with Chicago. While Crawford has been the starter since the 2010-2011 season (even though that job was supposed to belong to Marty Turco), it has been a sometimes-uncertain situation regarding the future behind “Crow.”
It now seems Raanta is that future.
It will be quite some time before Khabibulin is ready to take the ice again, and Raanta knows this. He must make the most of his opportunity in Chicago. A few bad outings are all that stand in the way from Raanta earning his spot on the Blackhawks.
Given his performances, though, don’t count on that.