Ken Holland has had an uncharacteristically long summer, what with the Detroit Red Wings missing the post-season for the first time in a quarter-century. But with his team in transition and plenty of important decisions to be made about the future of his roster, maybe it’s a good thing Holland has had time to think long and hard about what’s next. That’s especially true when it comes to his goaltending situation.
Asked over the weekend by MLive.com’s Ansar Khan about what his plan was for making sense of a crowded crease that includes Petr Mrazek, Jimmy Howard and Jared Coreau, Holland said that he was “not sure” of what he was going to do. And it’s hard to blame the Red Wings GM for having some back-and-forth when it comes to what the right decision is for the Red Wings. The truth is that this likely isn’t a situation Holland saw himself being in this summer.
Heading into the previous campaign, all talk was that Howard, the 33-year-old veteran of the group, was on his way out. Mrazek, 25, had played remarkably well late in the 2015-16 campaign and the belief was that it was his job to lose as the 2016-17 season approached. But lose it he did.
In what was an all-around disappointing season for the Red Wings, it would be fair to say that the most disappointing campaign of all was had by Mrazek. After posting a stellar .921 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average across 54 games in the Detroit crease in 2015-16, Mrazek turned in an unsightly performance this past season. Across 50 games, he managed a .901 SP and 3.04 GAA. It doesn’t take long to go through the list of goaltenders who played as often and performed as poorly, either. That’s because there weren’t any.
What complicates things for Holland this summer isn’t just that Mrazek was so dreadful, though. It’s that while Mrazek was struggling Howard played well, albeit in limited time. In between stints on the injured list, Howard started 24 games and turned in a 10-11-1 record while posting a .927 SP, 2.10 GAA and one shutout. It was far and away the best performance of any of the three Red Wings goaltenders. In fact, of goaltenders to play at least two dozen contests, Howard’s SP mark was second-best in the league, behind only potential Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, while the veteran netminder’s GAA ranked fourth behind Bobrovsky, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer.
So, you can see where the trouble lies for Holland.
However, despite Mrazek’s poor season and a year in which Howard turned back the clock, Holland shouldn’t be looking to change his course of action. The speculative plan heading into the past season was to let Howard walk and hold on to Mrazek, and that’s exactly what Holland should be looking to do as he heads towards one of the most important off-seasons of his tenure as Red Wings GM.
The reasons why it’s Howard and not Mrazek that should be on the move are twofold. First, there’s the ever-present salary cap impact that has to be taken into account. As Detroit heads into the summer, Holland has roughly $5.9 million to work with, according to CapFriendly. And while that’s a good chunk of change, it’s not near enough to improve a roster that’s in need of some serious improving, especially on the backend.
The thing is, though, that a significant amount of cap space could be cleared by moving out Howard, who carries a $5.29 million cap hit for the next two seasons. While there are no out-and-out stud defensemen to be had on the open market shy of Kevin Shattenkirk, there are still some rearguards who could interest the Red Wings as they look to beef up the blueline and having the cash to chase after those defenders is going to be of utmost importance if Holland sees his team starting another post-season streak in 2017-18. And while Mrazek also carries a significant cap hit at $4 million next season, the nearly $1.3 million difference is enough that it can potentially add up to an extra signing come the 2018-19 season.
In Detroit’s situation, though, it has to go beyond dollars and cents. The Red Wings were bad this past season. There’s no two ways about it. The only team with fewer regulation or overtime wins was the Colorado Avalanche, a team that pieced together an almost historically terrible campaign. Detroit may not be interested in a full-scale rebuild, but changing their fate moving forward means hitching their wagon to young players with big potential, and Mrazek fits that bill.
Look, there’s no denying how dreadful he played this past season, but the fact is Mrazek put together a 27-win season the year prior as a 23-year-old and across his first 83 starts in the NHL, he had a .920 SP and 2.29 GAA. One bad season shouldn’t completely wash that away. In talking with Khan, Holland pointed out that Mrazek got better down the stretch, specifically pointing to the back end of the campaign. Holland is right, too. Across Mrazek’s first 25 games, he turned in an .893 SP and won just nine times. And while his win total stayed level across the final 25 outings of his season, Mrazek’s SP jumped up to .907.
Does it show a lack of consistency in Mrazek’s play? Quite possibly, but he’s a 25-year-old netminder in a league where most elite goaltenders are much deeper into their careers. Take a look at the Vezina Trophy finalists this season. Bobrovsky is 28, Holtby is 27 and Carey Price is 29.
There’s no question that there will be fewer takers for Howard than Mrazek when Holland starts working the phones, but it would be ill advised to move Mrazek along because it's the easier option or because he's coming off of a horrendous year. With what he’s shown in the past, Mrazek could stand to be the starting goaltender in Hockeytown for another five-plus years, and if the Red Wings can insulate him with a stronger defense, who knows the heights Mrazek could reach.
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