Blackhawks’ quiet minor-league signing might hint at long-term goalie outlook

Last week, the Hawks signed third-string Rockford goalie Matt Tomkins to a two-year, two-way NHL contract. That transaction gives them more flexibility in their negotiations with pending free agents Robin Lehner, Corey Crawford and Kevin Lankinen.

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Lehner.jpg

Robin Lehner has been fantastic for the Blackhawks this season, but the focus will soon shift toward his contract situation.

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The Blackhawks quietly made a small transaction deep in their minor-league system last week to ensure they’ll have the widest range of options with their complicated goalie situation moving forward.

Matt Tomkins, 25, was a seventh-round draft pick in 2012 who spent his full four years at Ohio State before moving on to the Hawks’ two minor-league affiliates — the ECHL’s Indy Fuel and the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs — the last three seasons.

He had been playing on an AHL contract. On Thursday, however, the Hawks ‘‘signed’’ — or, more accurately but less officially, converted — Tomkins’ contract into a two-year, two-way NHL deal.

The signing isn’t undeserved. Tomkins improved from his first season to his second with the Fuel, then moved up this season to the IceHogs. He leads the team with a .916 save percentage despite making only nine appearances so far.

But Tomkins is unlikely to become a relevant NHL player and still sits fifth on the Hawks’ goalie depth chart behind Robin Lehner, Corey Crawford, Kevin Lankinen and Collin Delia.

Moving him to an NHL contract, however, likely has something to do with three things: Lehner and Crawford are pending unrestricted free agents this summer; Lankinen is a pending restricted free agent; and the trade deadline Feb. 24 is less than a month away.

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Matt Tomkins, seen here at the Hawks’ 2017 development camp, was “signed” to an NHL contract last week in the midst of a solid yet sparse AHL campaign.

Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

It has been obvious for a while that Lehner or Crawford might be traded before the deadline so that the Hawks can recoup some assets instead of risking one walking away for nothing in July.

General manager Stan Bowman would like to keep both players, but each has gone public in recent weeks about not being interested in taking a ‘‘hometown discount’’ from the cash-strapped Hawks to keep the twosome in place.

Crawford also suggested he’s not inclined to sign into a designated backup role, which he clearly is filling right now behind Lehner.

Furthermore, Bowman and Lehner’s agent, Craig Oster, allegedly have begun discussing Lehner’s expectations for a new contract, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun reported Friday. LeBrun also said the Hawks haven’t indicated they’re interested in trading Lehner, but the Hurricanes — seeking an upgrade from their shaky tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer — are one team explicitly interested.

The Hawks probably won’t make a move until they fall out of the playoff race or are forced to make a decision by the deadline, but both scenarios could arise within weeks.

So the dominoes are being lined up, even though none has fallen yet.

The Tomkins news indicates the Hawks aren’t playing around, either. The NHL’s collective-bargaining agreement requires all teams to have at least three goalies under contract at all times. The Hawks entered last week with only Delia certain to remain under contract come July. Tomkins increases that number to two.

Prospect goalie Alexis Gravel, who impressed at development camp and in the prospects tournament last offseason and whose draft rights expire this summer unless he is signed, could make it three. (Whether the Hawks will sign Gravel or just keep an eye on his development while betting no other team swoops in remains unclear, but he’s another variable to consider.)

Regardless, Bowman won’t be — and Lehner’s, Crawford’s and Lankinen’s agents now know he won’t be — facing any CBA-mandated deadline in his negotiations with the three goalies.

That flexibility might become relevant in the weeks before the deadline, too.

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