For the past six seasons, Jimmy Howard has been the man between the pipes for Detroit. With Petr Mrazek handed the starting reins for the Red Wings’ first game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, however, Howard’s time as Detroit’s number one might be up.
Howard had been, without a doubt, the Red Wings go-to goaltender heading into the all-star break. Up until Jan. 10, he had backstopped Detroit in 32 games, had the team in contention for top spot in the Atlantic Division and his numbers looked solid – Howard had a 2.11 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. But on Jan. 10, he went down with a groin injury after playing just 1:53 against the Washington Capitals and allowing one goal on three shots.
From there, Mrazek took over. And after being forced to split time with Mrazek once returning from injury, it might be hard for Howard to ever get his job back.
Of course, like most goaltending situations in which a young upstart overtakes the veteran, it wasn’t a situation where Mrazek took the net for the entire homestretch. Mrazek only saw another nine games once Howard was healthy, but it became apparent around March 15 that Howard’s job was in trouble. He had been back for thirteen games and watched his numbers slip to a 2.38 GAA and .913 SP. That’s when it became clear Mrazek was going to get his shot.
Over the season’s final 15 games, Howard saw the ice in eight games and Mrazek nine. In his time on ice, Mrazek posted a .938 5-on-5 SP. The near .940-mark was 12th in the league, ahead of goaltenders like Carey Price, Roberto Luongo, Ben Bishop and Cam Talbot. Meanwhile, Howard stumbled to a .920 mark, the 25th best mark in the league and more on par with goaltenders like Alex Stalock, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kari Lehtonen.
But it was the slide in Howard’s numbers that were so concerning. Before his groin injury right before the all-star break, Howard was looking like he was on pace to have a career year. Then, slowly, he came crashing back to earth. At season’s end, Howard had posted an extremely mediocre 2.44 GAA and .910 SP.
Though Mrazek’s 2.38 GAA and .918 SP aren’t much more dazzling, it’s the fact that Howard has now posted two straight subpar seasons that’s concerning. And though this year was bad, in 2013-14, he had the second worst campaign of his career. Through 51 games, he went 21-19-11 with a 2.66 GAA and .910 SP. Those aren’t starting goaltending numbers – certainly not good ones, at least. It would be comforting if Howard’s numbers were an aberration and not the norm. Sadly, though, Howard has failed to be consistent throughout his career.
In three of Howard’s six full seasons in Detroit, his SP numbers were below .920 and only twice has he posted a GAA below 2.25. At 31, he is in what should be the best years of his career, but instead he’s floundering between the pipes for the Red Wings. As for Mrazek, at 22, he has been everything from brilliant to unexceptional in his short career, but there’s room to grow and he’s already showing he has similar, if not better, ability to Howard.
Equally as troubling for Detroit is that there are four years at an average value of $4.75 million remaining on Howard’s deal. Their options, with compliance buyouts gone by the wayside last off-season, are to find a trade for Howard or buyout his remaining salary and deal with the decreased cap hit. Neither are great options, but if Mrazek is to be the number one goaltender now and in the future, it might be worth saving nearly $4 million per season with a buyout.
It appears the best hope for Howard going forward is to get back into goal at some point in this series and play the best hockey of his career, because, at this point, winning games when he gets his shot, or Mrazek losing them, might be the only way Howard gets his starting job back.