Before the season started, the Detroit Red Wings’ goaltending situation was a no-brainer. Veteran netminder Jimmy Howard had done his part, but with a sizeable cap hit and diminishing play, his time was up. Howard’s younger counterpart, Petr Mrazek, was the starter of both the present and the future, inked to a two-year, $8-million extension. It seemed like only a matter of time — be it by trade or by expansion draft — that Howard would find himself with a new home.
A lot can change over the course of a few months, however.
Though Howard has spent nearly a month on the sideline, he was, through the early part of the season, the lone bright spot for a Red Wings team more destined to finish with a shot at the first overall pick than at keeping their post-season streak alive. Across his 17 games, he posted a 1.96 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and, of goaltenders who have seen at least 500 minutes at 5-on-5, Howard ranks sixth with a .936 SP.
Meanwhile, Mrazek, the Red Wings’ expected goaltender of the future, has looked like anything but. Through 25 appearances, he has an unsightly .893 SP and 3.19 goals-against average, and in six of his 21 starts, he’s finished the game with a sub-.850 SP. Among the same grouping of netminders as Howard, Mrazek ranks 43rd out of 49 goaltenders with a .909 SP at 5-on-5. Those are far from starter calibre numbers.
The wildcard in all of this has been that with Howard out and Mrazek struggling, the Red Wings have turned to 25-year-old Jared Coreau, who has been their undisputed best option in goal as of late. An undrafted goaltender out of the NCAA’s Northern Michigan University, Coreau played his way into a job as an ECHL starter with the Toledo Walleye in 2013-14, turned that into an AHL starting gig by 2015-16 and has now gotten the call in seven of the past 11 games in Howard’s absence. Over that time, Coreau’s .915 SP and 2.48 GAA are leagues ahead of the .868 SP and 3.70 GAA Mrazek is sporting, and that’s not to mention the two shutouts Coreau has posted along the way.
All of this poses a major question for Detroit moving forward, too, and that’s how to approach their goaltending situation come this off-season because, no matter what, something has to give. The choice for GM Ken Holland won’t be an easy one, either, with pros and cons for each netminder he currently has in his stable.
When it comes to Howard, the clearcut veteran of the group, Holland will no doubt take a look at what the netminder has done for the team this season. Were it not for Howard, the minuscule glimmer of hope the Red Wings have at making something that even resembles a run up the standings would have been snuffed out by the time December rolled around. He’s got the experience in goal and has proven in several seasons that he can be an average-or-better starter in Detroit.
What works against Howard, though, is that his game has been littered with inconsistency over the past several years. His best seasons, with .920-plus SPs in 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2016-17, have bookended a three-year period in which he boasted an average SP of .909. And even when he has been at the top of his game, Howard has battled injury, missing 47 games in the past six seasons. Six of those absences have been knee or groin related, which has to be somewhat worrisome. None of this is to mention that Howard’s $5.292-million cap hit is the biggest reason many saw him as the odd-man out in the Detroit crease. It was too much money and too much term, with another two seasons remaining after 2016-17, for a goaltender who had been mediocre in the run up to this season.
As for Mrazek, the worry comes in understanding which goaltender the Red Wings are going to get. There have been two versions of Mrazek, and the current one isn't the one Holland or the Red Wings faithful had hoped they'd see this season. Rather, the hope was they'd be getting the Mrazek who stood on his head for a two-month period from December 2015 to February 2016, posting a 13-6-1 record, .942 SP and three shutouts in 21 games. Instead, he's been more like the Mrazek who went 6-6-1 with a .886 SP in his final 16 appearances during the 2015-16 regular season and lost the starting job to start the post-season. Mrazek has dealt with a continuation of his struggles from the end of the past season, though it could simply be a matter of the 24-year-old netminder trying to regain his confidence after having it shaken.
Regardless of the play in goal, Mrazek holds a decided edge when it comes to cap management. He’s nearly $1.3-million cheaper than Howard and comes off the books following the 2017-18 campaign. For a Detroit team that’s projected to have a mere $4.653-million in cap space at season’s end, any extra spending money under the cap could be huge. Right now, though, Mrazek is effectively a third-string netminder behind Coreau and Howard, whenever he's able to return. Is that enough to have Holland and the Red Wings' brass change their mind when it comes to Mrazek as the future in goal?
As far as the lock to stick around in Detroit, the only option in that regard is really Coreau. His $612,500 cap hit makes him a no-brainer for the backup role, especially if he can continue to push the starting netminder, be it Mrazek or Howard, with his own exceptional play. It’s not as if there’s a bluechip prospect on the way that will push Coreau out of the way, either. None of the 10-best prospects in the Detroit system are netminders, and unless there’s a dynamite signing to shore up the goaltending, Coreau looks like the best thing the Red Wings have going in terms of strong, second-string goaltending down the road. Even if he’s a flash in the pan who fizzles out at some point soon, Detroit would likely only be looking for him to be a serviceable backup next season.
The solution, of course, likely still lies in playing to the cap and hoping Mrazek turns it around. Despite what Howard has done this season, the Red Wings aren’t going to do all that much with top-tier goaltending, even if that’s what Howard winds up providing wherever he goes next. If Mrazek has difficulty again in the starting role next season or there are down years due to poor goaltending, the Red Wings can look at other options for the future. For the time being, though, Detroit’s a team in transition and it serves the organization better to put their faith in the pair of Mrazek and Coreau, hoping one or both push for the starting job and lay claim to the crease when the time comes for the Red Wings to contend again.
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