Already dealing with the departure of Pavel Datsyuk, the Detroit Red Wings have another major contract issue to deal with — that of goaltender Jimmy Howard.
The veteran netminder has been a major piece of the Red Wings for several seasons, but the emergence of youngster Petr Mrazek combined with Howard’s sizeable $5.29-million cap hit has become problematic for Detroit.
When Mrazek was still on his entry-level deal or his second, team-friendly contract, the combined cap hit of the netminders wasn’t an issue. It’s about to become one with Mrazek due a big raise as a restricted free agent, though. Mrazek's new deal could carry a cap hit between $4-5 million per season, which would put Detroit under a cap crunch, especially if GM Ken Holland is hoping to add pieces to his roster in the off-season.
Overpaying for Howard is an issue, too, especially with Holland prepared to hand the starting job to Mrazek. Yet Holland seems somewhat uneasy about the goaltender’s ability to be a workhorse in the way other starting netminders are, which could extend Howard's stay in Detroit.
“We don’t have one guy that can play 70 games,” Holland told Sportsnet’s 590 The Fan on Monday. “And we just need someone to make $650,000 and play 10 or 12 games. We need two goaltenders. Petr Mrazek is our No. 1 guy as we head into training camp, but he’s 24…I think he can play more at some point in time. Is it this year? I guess what I’m saying is you need two goaltenders. I’ve got to sit and negotiate a deal with Petr Mrazek and his agent. As we go along here over the next week or 10 days, we’ll see where we go with our goaltending.”
That Holland was open about his team’s need to find a cheaper option at backup could be writing on the wall for Howard, who has said during this off-season that he has thought about being traded and that he would understand. Holland did say, though, that his goaltending duo was important to the team’s success this past season. Detroit ranked 14th in 5-on-5 save percentage, according to Puckalytics.
“I thought our goaltending was a strength of our team this year, but the wheels came off of both of them at different times,” Holland told The Fan. “When the wheels came off of Jimmy Howard in January and February, Petr Mrazek took the ball and ran. And when the wheels came off of Petr in the middle of February and March, Jimmy Howard took the ball and ran. We’re going to need two really good goaltenders like all teams do.”
Holland’s insistence on having two solid goaltending options could mean he keeps Howard around, though, and he spoke highly of Howard’s play at the times the Red Wings needed him to come in and take over for Mrazek. The youngster did indeed struggle down the stretch, but he was back in goal come playoff time and finished the season with a 1-2 playoff record, 1.35 goals-against average and .945 SP.
And even if the “wheels came off” of Mrazek at one point in the season, he was far and away the better goaltender for the bulk of the season, which should make Howard expendable. Mrazek ranked 12th of the 36 goaltenders to play 1,500 minutes at 5-on-5, posting a .931 SP in 2,317 minutes. Howard, on the other hand, ranked 29th with a .920 mark across 1,546 minutes of action.
However, Holland is going to be cautious about making the choice to move Howard. It may end up being by necessity that Howard is traded, but Holland is aware that he can’t make a rash decision that could hurt Mrazek’s development. At this point, the belief is there that Mrazek can become the workhorse goaltender Detroit wants him to turn into.
“We’re hoping Petr can develop into that,” Holland told The Fan. “But I think it’s unfair to Petr, unfair to the organization and it could possibly be detrimental if we put Petr in a situation where we’re just going to throw him out, he plays 70 games and no matter how he plays, and we’re going to keep putting him out.”