CHICAGO (AP) - The plan for Corey Crawford is being closely guarded by the goaltender and the Chicago Blackhawks.
The final result, at least for Crawford, is a foregone conclusion. Asked Friday if he has any doubt he can return to the form that made him one of the NHL's top goalies, Crawford responded: "No, I don't doubt that at all."
That was perhaps Crawford's most emphatic answer in his first public comments since he missed the final part of last season with an upper-body injury, a key factor in Chicago's tumble into last place in the Central Division. While the Blackhawks signed veteran goaltender Cam Ward to a $3 million, one-year deal in free agency, Crawford's health remains the organization's biggest question heading into training camp.
"I'm feeling pretty good right now," Crawford said on the first day of the team's annual fan convention. "I'm not at 100 percent yet, but we've come a long way in the last couple months. I worked really hard to do whatever I can to get better and I'm excited to be here right now and see all the guys."
Crawford played in 28 games last season, going 16-9-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. The two-time All-Star was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 27, and that was it.
The 33-year-old Crawford faced some shots during a morning skate in Arizona on Feb. 12, and coach Joel Quenneville left open the possibility of a return for a long time. But Crawford was reduced to spectator while Anton Forsberg, Jean-Francois Berube and Jeff Glass struggled in goal and the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
"To have a guy like Crow back in the locker room helps," captain Jonathan Toews said. "Like I mentioned at the end of the season and last week, we've got to try and get our team game, get everything in check and ready to go regardless of what our goaltending situation is and be ready to play our best hockey if it's Cam or Corey in the net and ease the job on those two guys instead of relying on them like we have in the last couple years."
Crawford and the Blackhawks remain tight-lipped about what sidelined the goaltender for the last part of the year. He declined to provide any specifics Friday, and also knocked away a question about his current activity level.
"I'm not going to get into what I'm doing right now," he said. "Treatments are going well and we're making small steps and I'm getting a little better. It's a process. It has been a process since I left in December."
Goaltending coach Jimmy Waite shed a little more light on Crawford's progress.
"We've talked all summer," Waite said. "Things are getting better, he said. He keeps working hard all summer in the gym. He hasn't been on the ice, which is normal for this time of year."
Crawford, a second-round pick in the 2003 draft, made his NHL debut with Chicago in 2006. He became a full-time starter for the 2010-11 season, and helped the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015. He had won at least 30 games for four straight seasons before his injury in December.
If Crawford isn't ready for the start of this year, Ward likely would step into the top job. He went 23-14-4 last year with Carolina, finishing with two shutouts, a 2.73 goals-against average and a .906 save percentage.
The 34-year-old Ward had spent his entire career with the Hurricanes before signing with the Blackhawks.
"This is all new to me," Ward said. "I don't know anything different than the way things have been operated in Carolina and I've really enjoyed my time there. Like I said, I'm very thankful for everything they have done for me. But at the same time, I'm excited to see something different and I've heard nothing but outstanding things about the organization."
While Ward likely is a more steady presence than the goaltenders used by Chicago last year, a healthy return for Crawford could provide a huge lift. If Crawford is unable to play consistently and the Blackhawks miss the playoffs again, that could be it for general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville.
But that scenario seemed far away from Crawford's mind as he caught up with some teammates ahead of the fan weekend. He repeatedly said how excited he was to be back together with the rest of the players.
It was clear he wasn't taking anything for granted. Asked if any part of his injury and recovery was scary for him in terms of his long-term health, an emotional Crawford said: "A little bit, but I'm excited to be back."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap
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