When the expansion draft protection lists were announced Sunday, there were some definite surprises.
That the New York Islanders protected five defensemen without giving rearguard Calvin de Haan safety, for instance, was met with some confusion. Likewise, the Florida Panthers’ decision to expose 30-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault and defenseman Jason Demers has left some puzzled. And as one works through each of the 30 lists, there are more than a handful of shocking inclusions among the players available to the Vegas Golden Knights.
However, there’s arguably no player whose lack of protection caught nearly everyone off guard more than that of Detroit Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek. The 25-year-old netminder seemed the surefire choice for protection in a crowded Detroit crease for a number of reasons, including the fact he almost undeniably has the most upside of any keeper in the Red Wings’ ranks right now. So, why was he left exposed?
Well, if you’re expecting a definitive answer, you’re out of luck. Red Wings GM Ken Holland hasn’t spilled the beans on his decision to protect veteran Jimmy Howard over Mrazek, and without Holland filling everyone in, it really is tough to figure out why. Mrazek is younger than Howard, cheaper, has less history of injury and ends his contract as a restricted free agent. He’s a better goaltender than Jared Coreau, the third-stringer in Detroit, and a safer bet to take over the crease as the starter. One would imagine those are all things that make him the more attractive protection option.
But maybe one downright dreadful season was enough for the Red Wings to give up on the youngster, and there’s no possible way to deny Mrazek was awful this past campaign.
When you compare Mrazek’s numbers to those of other netminders who suited up in at least half of his team’s games in 2016-17, things get pretty ugly. Of the 30 goaltenders who fit the bill, Mrazek’s .901 save percentage ranks 30th and his 3.04 goals-against average doesn’t make his year look any better, putting him dead last among the same group. It just so happens his one shutout is also the least of those 30 netminders. And the cherry on top? At 5-on-5, it was much the same, as Mrazek finished 27th with a .917 SP.
It’s risky to judge Mrazek on one season alone, though. Heading into this past campaign, Mrazek had a .920 SP and 2.29 GAA with nine shutouts across his previous 92 games, not to mention a .929 SP at 5-on-5, which is the 12th-best mark of the 61 goaltenders to play at least 2,000 minutes over the three prior campaigns. He was a safe bet for the future of the Red Wings’ crease, and Detroit tried to clear up their crowded net by moving Howard along ahead of the 2016-17 season to give Mrazek the full-time reins. Now, it seems the Red Wings are happy a trade for Howard never came to fruition.
While no one knows exactly what the reason for the change of heart has been, some have speculated it boils down to an issue of off-ice attitude. MLive.com's Ansar Khan reported that, “sometimes (Mrazek’s) too cocky for his own good, some in the organization believe. He became increasingly difficult to coach last season, they said.” Even if there is truth to that, though, leaving Mrazek exposed could result in Detroit losing a netminder with great potential for nothing — not even a single, solitary draft choice.
And make no mistake that Mrazek is exactly who Golden Knights GM George McPhee should be looking to pluck from the Red Wings’ roster.
Look, while there’s no doubting that Mrazek had a rough go this past season, there’s also no denying his immense potential, and bringing him to Vegas could give the Golden Knights an even more solid crease than they were already expected to have. As noted, Mrazek’s down season this past campaign pales in comparison to the numbers he’s put up in the years prior, and if his game can reach the heights it did during his stints in the past three campaigns, he could be a star keeper in no time in Vegas.
Some might bristle at the idea, especially with the speculation that Marc-Andre Fleury is set to become Vegas’ No. 1, but what’s stopping the Golden Knights from sinking additional money into their crease? They’re going to be prevented from grabbing high-paid, top-tier forwards and there are few defensemen who are really going to create anything that resembles a cap crunch for McPhee. Throw money in the crease and see if the team can’t build from the net out with a Mrazek and Fleury duo. There’s nothing to lose.
That said, there could be something to drafting Mrazek and flipping him, too. On Sunday, after the lists were announced, McPhee hinted at the potential for the Golden Knights to select a player and then move him on to another organization in return for picks or prospects. In fact, in colleague Matt Larkin’s mock draft, he hinted at this scenario with — you guessed it — Mrazek. And there are a few teams who would be intrigued by Mrazek’s potential, without question.
Just look at the Philadelphia Flyers. It was reported that Steve Mason is unlikely to return next season, leaving Philadelphia shorthanded in the crease or forced to go with a duo of Michal Neuvirth and Anthony Stolarz. In all likelihood, that’s an area GM Ron Hextall will be looking to improve before the campaign kicks off. And looking at the available free agents, there may be no better way for Hextall to do that than to nab Mrazek for a pick or two from the Golden Knights and insert the promising young netminder into the Flyers’ crease. Mrazek would get to play alongside fellow Czech goaltender Neuvirth, come in at a time when the defense is on the cusp of taking a step forward and get the chance to be a surefire starter.
It’s not just the Flyers who are in need of goaltending help, though. The Arizona Coyotes will be looking for a starter after Mike Smith was traded to the Calgary Flames over the weekend, though they could opt for a cheaper option than Mrazek, who is owed a $4.15 million salary this coming season. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres have yet to lock up Robin Lehner to a new deal and could be looking to change things up in goal under new GM Jason Botterill. In addition, Ryan Miller remains unsigned by the Canucks, and Vancouver probably doesn’t want to enter the season with a Jacob Markstrom-Richard Bachman duo.
Even if Mrazek happens to stay in Detroit, the writing seems to be on the wall that he’s not long for the Red Wings’ organization. He may have been the goaltender of the future at one point, but if that’s a title he wants to recapture, it appears it may have to come outside of Hockeytown.
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