It might be difficult to stomach the salary cap implications, but the Detroit Red Wings might be best served by hanging onto Jimmy Howard for the duration of the 2016-17 campaign.
The looming NHL expansion draft — as if an expansion draft can do anything besides loom — this summer is forcing teams around the league to make tough choices. Only so many players can be protected, and several franchises will have to make difficult decisions as the year wears on.
Especially when it comes to goaltenders.
Teams have two options when it comes to how they can protect their assets. As per NHL.com, organizations can take one of these two routes:
a) Seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender
b) Eight skaters (forwards/defensemen) and one goaltender
When these rules became official in June, it was immediately clear that the Red Wings could very well end up losing a goaltender. With 24-year-old Petr Mrazek slated as the team’s starter for the next several seasons, Howard seemed to be stuck on the outside looking in.
Back in April, Brendan Savage of MLive.com reported that the veteran netminder was on the trading block. And he knew it, telling the website the following during locker cleanout day after the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated Detroit from the playoffs:
“It’s part of the business. A lot of times, a lot of people go through it in this business. If that were to happen, it happens. … It would be disappointing. I’ve met a lot of great people in this city, made a lot of great friends. That’s the nature of this business. Sometimes you got to pack up and move on.”
Howard was bang on when he said that sometimes you need to just pack your bags and head out for a fresh start. But after the Red Wings shopped him all summer and found no takers, they are once again stuck in a will-they-or-won’t-they limbo.
That’s because, for all of his poise and potential, Mrazek hasn’t done quite enough to justify trading a steady hand like Howard.
After all, it was the veteran who put the Red Wings on his back when Mrazek stumbled down the stretch last season. Mrazek crumbled from potential Vezina Trophy finalist to backup in just over a month’s time once the calendar flipped to 2016, and there’s a good chance that Detroit wouldn’t have made the playoffs if it weren’t for Howard’s steady play.
Like it or not, general manager Ken Holland clearly plans to push for a playoff spot once again this year. He spent a lot of money on veteran free agent patches during the offseason and tried to stack his team the best he could once names like Steven Stamkos dried up.
With that goal in mind, it seems clear that the best course of action for the Red Wings would be to keep Howard on the team, even if it means losing him for nothing during the expansion draft.
Moreover, Detroit needs to hang onto Howard until Mrazek proves he can carry the Red Wings through an entire season as the undisputed starter.
Some pundits are quick to point out that $5,291,667 is a pretty large cap hit for a backup goalie — especially since Mrazek is hitting the cap for $4 million over the next two years — but at what juncture has Howard truly been a No. 2 over the last two seasons?
Mrazek put together a dynamic stretch of play in 2015-16, but (as mentioned before) he fell off in a pretty big way. Who knows what would have happened if Howard hadn’t been there as a safety net. Would the Red Wings want to find out, though?
There’s little question about Mrazek’s ability when he’s on. Since the start of 2015-16, only three goalies in the league have a better quality start percentage than the 24-year-old. Twenty-five goalies (including Howard) have more really bad starts during that time frame, and only seven goalies have stronger save percentages than Mrazek’s 0.920.
Still, it appears the Red Wings will be a team that relies heavily on above-average goaltending this season. There’s virtually zero chance that goals will continue to come like they have been for Detroit, and their lucky bounces will regress back towards the norm eventually. Detroit can’t afford to lose both the high-end offense and strong goaltending at the same time.
With Howard available as a secondary option, Holland insulates his team against a two or three week stretch of bad play from Mrazek. The Red Wings will need to dump some salary eventually this season, but hanging onto these two goalies for the entirety of 2016-17 seems to be the best course of action.
Especially when you consider that Holland would likely need to eat a large chunk of Howard’s cap hit to trade him. Would Detroit be a better team with around $3 million freed up following a Howard trade?
It seems unlikely. The Red Wings would probably need to take a goalie back to make a deal work, and it seems unlikely that he’d be as viable as Howard as a backup.
There’s no denying it’s expensive and that Detroit would like to be in a different salary cap position. This is where Holland has guided the Red Wings, though, and right now rolling out Howard every three or four games gives Detroit the flexibility it needs in goal.