March 24, 2023

The injury bug has hit the Chicago Blackhawks, and no position has been affected more than the goaltenders. Starting goaltender Petr Mrazek was placed on injured reserve on Oct. 23 with a groin strain, and backup goaltender Alex Stalock was placed in concussion protocol on Nov. 1 after a collision with New York Islanders forward Casey Cizikas. This led to the Blackhawks recalling Arvid Soderblom from the Rockford Icehogs of the American Hockey League (AHL). Chicago also signed Dyan Wells from the Indy Fuel of the ECHL to an NHL contract to be Soderblom’s backup. This is because Rockford’s backup goaltender Jaxson Stauber is in concussion protocol. Yet, on Nov. 5 against the Winnipeg Jets, Soderblom was taken out of the game during the second intermission due to an undisclosed injury, which had Wells making his NHL debut. So now, the goaltending behind Wells is in question.

The Blackhawks could continue to sign players from their ECHL and AHL pipeline, as they did with Wells, but with the injuries piling up, it wouldn’t be shocking if Chicago decided to test the free-agent market for goaltending help. Here are some netminders that could get a look.

Andrew Hammond

Andrew Hammond has spent the last six years between the AHL and as an NHL backup goalie. Last season, he was with the Montreal Canadiens and the New Jersey Devils. Still, he played the most with the Devils, where he sported a 1-5-1 record with a 4.66 goals-against average (GAA) and a .860 save percentage (SV%). Although he has only appeared in 67 NHL games, he has picked up valuable experience. He has five playoff games to his name with the Ottawa Senators (2015) and the Colorado Avalanche (2018), in which he has a .924 SV%, which is always nice to see on a resume.

Andrew Hammond New Jersey Devils
Andrew Hammond, New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In September, he signed a one-year contract with the Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) but terminated his contract after two games to return to North America. It signals he could be in the mix for another NHL job, and maybe the Blackhawks could be one of the interested teams. He is 34-years-old and has struggled with injuries throughout his career; however, he looks healthy now and ready for a role. He has a career .916 SV% and is someone that teams have called upon in the past, showing his reputation as a reliable backup. Although he might not be the player he once was, he could still provide the Blackhawks with security in the net when needed. In addition, he could provide a veteran presence in net. Moreover, Blackhawks’ fans would also have fun with his famous “Hamburglar” nickname after making a big save.

Garret Sparks

When hockey fans hear the name Garret Sparks, they usually are familiar with it. Sparks has spent four years in the NHL and is most known for his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as he had two stints with them between 2015 and 2019. In that timespan, he appeared in 37 NHL games with a 14-18-2 record, a 3.09 GAA, and a .898 SV%. With Toronto’s AHL affiliate, the Toronto Marlies, he won a Calder Cup championship in 2018 and was the AHL goaltender of the year. Since then, he has spent time in the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings organizations.

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Last season with the Kings, Sparks appeared in two games with a 1-1 record, a 1.85 GAA, and a .936 SV%. But he mostly spent the year with the Ontario Reign of the AHL. The Kings then chose not to re-sign him when his one-year, two-way deal expired. At his best, he is known for his athleticism and flexibility with his 6-foot-2 frame that puts him in good positions to make saves.

The other thing about 29-year-old Sparks is that he is in the vicinity. He is from Elmhurst, IL, so if the Blackhawks wanted reinforcements, they wouldn’t have to look far. Overall, he has shown inconsistency at the NHL level, but the 29-year-old could step in for a few games.

Kaden Fulcher

24-year-old Kaden Fulcher would be a wild card choice for the Blackhawks, but if they wanted to stick with young talents like Soderblom and Wells, Fulcher could be an option. He signed with the Detroit Red Wings as an undrafted free agent in October 2017. However, during that stretch, he mostly spent his time with the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL. He only spent a very brief time at the NHL level. The Red Wings recalled Fulcher on an emergency basis in April 2019, and he took over for injured starter Jimmy Howard in the second period in a game against the Buffalo Sabres. He allowed two goals on 11 shots in a 7-1 loss, which accounted for a 4.41 GAA and a .818 SV%.

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He’s a big body that can take up space at 6-foot-3 and 183 pounds, but a criticism of his game is that he can be “herky-jerky” in net. However, it looks like he has improved as last season with the Walleye, he had a 10-7 record with two shutouts, a 2.46 GAA, and a .912 SV%, which are career-best numbers. Yet, the Red Wings decided not to give him a qualifying offer over the summer, making him an unrestricted free agent.

Fulcher might never be an “elite” goaltender, but he could deserve another shot. When it was announced that he did not receive a qualifying offer, Walleye head coach Dan Watson stated, “Kaden made progress in his game in all kinds of different ways. Kaden is an unbelievable teammate, team-first mentality type of guy and he will land on his feet somewhere.” It wouldn’t be a bad idea to explore. He would be a lot like what fans see in Wells: young and eager to prove himself with an opportunity. If the Blackhawks only need him for a couple of games, he could also help the team at the ECHL or AHL level if injuries keep occurring. Either way, it would be a cheap option with little downside.

The Blackhawks don’t have to go to the free-agent market. Mrazek is expected to return for their game against the Kings on Nov. 10. If that happens, they’ll likely stick with Mrazek and Wells until Stalock or Soderblom returns. But, I believe it would be smart for them to at least explore the market. The team is already on their fifth-string goalie in 12 games. It wouldn’t hurt to have the reinforcements, especially because injury timelines can be finicky, and you can never be 100% certain when a player will return. The Blackhawks goalies are hurting right now at all levels, and it would be smart for management to be proactive, as there is a lot of hockey season left.

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