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Red Wings face big deadline decision as Howard, Mrazek head in opposite directions

The Red Wings will be sellers at the deadline, but deciding which goaltender to move won’t be an easy decision for Detroit.

Come the trade deadline, the decision for most teams looking to sell off parts will be easy enough. Those on expiring contracts or players with values that exceed their usefulness to a bottom-feeding club will be put up for purchase and sold to the best bid that comes in from a buyer wins. The only choice the selling team will need to make is which offer to accept.

When it comes to the Detroit Red Wings, however, one decision in particular isn’t going to be quite that easy with four weeks remaining before the trade deadline. Because while the Red Wings, who sit 10 points out of a playoff spot and nine points out of the Eastern Conference basement, are most certainly in the seller category, there’s still no clear-cut answer as to what Detroit should do between the pipes. Making matters more difficult is that there are only three options, with each carrying with it the possibility to be a regrettable decision.

Asked ahead of the season what the Red Wings would do, the most common answer would have been that Detroit was intent on moving young goaltender Petr Mrazek along and sticking with long-time starter Jimmy Howard. Though that line of thinking went against what many had believed the Red Wings would decide in past summers, so, too, did Detroit’s decision to leave Mrazek exposed at the expansion draft, a choice that left Mrazek ripe for the taking without so much as a conditional seventh-round pick in return if the Golden Knights were so inclined. The thing is, though, that the Red Wings leaving Mrazek exposed wasn’t exactly impossible to understand, even if it seemed a bizarre choice given the netminders age.

Entering the 2016-17 season, Mrazek was primed to take over as Detroit’s No. 1, a spot on the depth chart that many believed he would snatch from Howard when the time was right. Yet, despite a career .920 save percentage in 94 games leading up to his first shot at the starting job, Mrazek’s performance was abysmal. Across 50 games, he managed a mere .901 SP while lugging along a bloated 3.04 goals-against average. On more than a handful of nights as the season wound down, he ceded the starting duties to Howard, who was supposed to be his backup at this point. Howard, it should be said, was deserving of the top job, too. In the face of what was a terrible year for Detroit, Howard was the lone bright spot and the campaign would have been that much worse for the Red Wings were it not for his play. He posted a .927 SP and 2.10 GAA in 24 appearances, undoubtedly making him the team’s most valuable player when he was healthy.

The 2017-18 campaign hasn’t been much different, either. Howard has seen a greater number of starts, Mrazek has primarily served as the backup and, statistically, the 33-year-old has been better than his younger counterpart. And that has led some to believe that if the writing wasn’t already on the wall for Mrazek in Detroit, it certainly is now. But complicating matters as the deadline approaches is that Mrazek has seemingly found his game and is showing why he was once believed to be the future of the Red Wings’ crease. That is to say, over the past two weeks, Mrazek has posted two shutouts and a sparkling .965 SP, while Howard has paired losses in four straight games with a mere .861 SP.

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On one hand, the Red Wings can decide to go ahead with what many believed would be their course of action either ahead of the season or at some point during this campaign and trade Mrazek. He will garner some attention as the trade freeze approaches, to be sure, especially from those teams who believe he can contribute as a No. 1 if he’s given the chance to start anew. And that’s exactly the reason such a deal could be lamented down the line. If Mrazek manages to become a starter in another city, if he finds the form that made him such a highly touted prospect, then the Red Wings have moved along a young netminder who could have nearly a decade worth of top-level play in him. For a franchise that needs to look long term, that would be disastrous.

Short term, such a deal could also backfire, too. For as well as Howard has played, there’s no denying he’s prone to injury. With Howard playing no more than 53 games in a single season since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, Detroit needs someone who can win games in relief and possibly shoulder the load for long stretches. Jared Coreau can work in a pinch, but the system is thin beyond that. There’s always the chance to add in the summer, mind you, but the Red Wings will need a significant portion of their off-season spending to go towards new deals for five restricted free agent forwards, a group which includes Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin.

So, the obvious answer then is to ship out Howard, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Teams will be calling on Howard — doesn’t he seem a perfect fit for the New York Islanders, who need someone, anyone, to help keep pucks out of the net? — but moving him along doesn’t exactly come with any guarantee that Mrazek is going to continue to play as well as he has in recent weeks. If he fails to find his form and his overall play across his past 66 games, which is to say his .902 SP and 3.04 GAA, is any indication of where things are headed, Mrazek leaves the Red Wings without a hope in goal. That could leave the organization scrambling for several years, including some seasons they could have used the average goaltending Howard was providing, while they search for the next-in-line for the No. 1 job. Ask the Carolina Hurricanes how easy it is to find capable goaltending even when your team looks prepared to take the next step. At the very least, Howard has shown he can provide some stability.

Possibly the worst part of this situation for the Red Wings, though, is that there’s no avoiding the potential for the decision to blow up in their face. That’s made tougher because their third option, riding it out, really isn’t an option at all. There is no reason Detroit should continue to pay both netminders, particularly not when Howard is earning nearly $5.3 million and Mrazek is due a new contract at season’s end. It simply doesn’t make sense for a team that has had cap issues for a few seasons, so something needs to give. And the hope for Red Wings faithful is that the decision doesn’t become one they wish the franchise could take back.

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