Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard – an Elite NHL Goaltender?
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)
By Rhys Richards (@RREsq)
The Detroit Red Wings will look dramatically different on defense this season.
While the team has been rumored to have made inquiries regarding Jay Bouwmeester and Keith Yandle, neither can replace the void left by the retired Nicklas Lidstrom if a deal is made. The offseason trade of stalwart stay-at-home defenseman Brad Stuart to San Jose created another large hole in the back end.
At the moment, the Red Wings appear content to enter the season with Niklas Kronwall, Ian White, Kyle Quincey, Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith, and Jakub Kindl. All are familiar faces but will be expected to take on expanded roles with the club.
No one is more affected by the defensive changes than starting goaltender Jimmy Howard. Howard enters his fourth season as Detroit’s starting goaltender after stealing the gig from Detroit great Chris Osgood midway through the 2009-2010 season.
With the retirement of Lidstrom and trade of Stuart, the easiest prediction is that Howard’s numbers will decline. However, a closer look at his playing career tells an interesting story that may be indicative of a different outcome.
In 2001-2002, Howard, a 6-foot, 218-pound native of Syracuse, New York, made a name for himself with the United States National Team Development Program. He played nine games with the under-17 and 26 with the under-18 team. He compiled a record of 22-11-1 and posted four shutouts. With the U-18 team, he posted a sterling 1.89 goals against average.
Howard turned heads at the IIHF under-18 Championship in the spring of 2002. He played in six games and backstopped the gold medal-winning American squad. He was subsequently named American Goaltender of the Year.
In the fall, Howard began his career at the University of Maine. He went 14-6 with a .916 save percentage and 2.45 GAA. He posted three shutouts and was named Hockey East’s Rookie of the Year. That offseason, Howard was drafted by Detroit 64th overall in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
In 2003-2004, the Black Bears rode Howard to the Championship game of the Frozen Four after he was named the Hockey East Tournament MVP. Despite losing to Denver 1-0, Howard established himself as an elite goaltending prospect. He posted a 14-4-3 record, an impeccable .956 save percentage, and a paltry 1.19 GAA. Howard also earned six shutouts.
Howard’s 2003-2004 save percentage and GAA still stand as the single season record in NCAA hockey ahead of fellow American and the Buffalo Sabres’ all-star goaltender Ryan Miller, who made the top 25 three times in both categories during his three years at Michigan State University. St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliot made both lists once with the University of Wisconsin.
Howard finished his career at the University of Maine the following season. He played the lion’s share of the team’s games and went 19-13-7. Despite the heavier load, Howard still posted a .924 save percentage and 1.92 GAA. He also added another six shutouts to his career statistics.
The 28-year-old still holds the University of Maine’s school records for save percentage, GAA, and shutouts for both a single season and a career.
In 2005-2006, Howard started his professional career with the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League. Howard picked up where he left off at Maine.
Howard was an astounding 27-6-2 and backstopped the Griffins to a franchise record 12 straight wins. He posted a .910 save percentage and 2.58 GAA and became the first Griffin to be named to the AHL’s All-Rookie Team.
In four games with the big club, Howard went 1-2 with a save percentage of .904 and GAA of 2.99.
In 2006-2007, Howard played more games for a weaker Grand Rapids team. He went 21-21-3 but still managed a .911 save percentage and 2.70 GAA. In 2007-2008, Howard took on even more of the goaltending load for a non-playoff Griffins team. He was 21-28-2 with a .907 save percentage and 2.83 GAA.
In 2007-2008, Howard again played four games for the big club. He did not record a win, but his save percentage and GAA were excellent at .926 and 2.13, respectively.
In his last season with Grand Rapids in 2008-2009, Howard’s record was 21-18-4. His .916 save percentage and 2.54 GAA helped to return the Griffins to the playoffs. Grand Rapids has not made it to the AHL playoffs since. For the third time in four seasons in the AHL, Howard played at least 45 games. Unfortunately, Howard flopped in his only appearance with Detroit.
In his four seasons with Grand Rapids, Howard posted 14 shutouts.
Howard joined the Red Wings as the backup goaltender in the 2009-2010 season. By midseason, Howard stole the starting job from Osgood. He ended the season with a record of 37-15-10. His remarkable .924 save percentage and 2.26 GAA, which both ranked in the top five in the NHL, were a part of the reason he finished second in the Calder Trophy race awarded to the top rookie. Howard also posted three shutouts.
Since the 2009-2010 season, Howard has been a mainstay in Detroit’s net. In his sophomore campaign in 2010-2011, he again posted 37 wins. His final record was 37-17-5. Howard’s save percentage and GAA dipped to .908 and 2.79, respectively. He also only posted two shutouts. That downgrade in his statistics led some to conclude that Howard was merely a mediocre goaltender who benefitted from a superior Detroit team in front of him.
This past season, Howard answered those critics. Despite an injury, Howard still managed to post a 35-17-4 record. His save percentage and GAA were both in the top-10 of the NHL at .920 and 2.13, respectively. He posted a career high six shutouts, which tied his personal best at any level of hockey. Howard and backup Joey MacDonald led the team to an NHL record 23-game home winning streak. Howard was named to the 2012 All-Star Team.
The retirement of Lidstrom and departure of Stuart certainly undermine the depth and quality of Detroit’s defense. Currently, Howard will be forced to rely on at least three defensemen in Ericsson, Kindl, and Smith, who will be forced into bigger roles than they have ever had. In fact, Kindl and Smith have only played in a combined 120 NHL games.
While Kronwall has been the heir apparent to Lidstrom for some time, he has never played any extended time as the top defenseman. White played with Lidstrom last season, but he disappeared when Lidstrom was injured and may be better suited to a second pairing assignment. Quincey has played and excelled in the top two pairings before, but he looked lost at times after being traded to Detroit at the deadline last season.
With the signing of Jonas Gustavsson and with Joey MacDonald in the second and final year of a contract, Howard will not be expected to start more games than in prior seasons. Provided Howard stays healthy, he will start approximately 60 games.
Howard has proven throughout his career that he can rise to the challenge of increased pressure and workload. He has also proven that he can rebound from disappointment.
Howard will make $2.25 million this season. He is entering a contract year. Howard’s save percentage and GAA declined in 2010-2011, his last contract year. Notably, Howard was in his second season, a time when many young players experience declines in their statistics, especially after superb rookie seasons. That pattern can be seen with recent Calder Trophy winners, Steve Mason, Tyler Myers (who edged out Howard for the honor in 2010), and Jeff Skinner.
Howard’s career statistics suggest that he is more than a mediocre goaltender on superb teams. Nevertheless, provided the NHLPA and NHL come to a collective bargaining agreement, this season could be Howard’s greatest test.
Howard has the ability to post numbers similar to his first three seasons in Detroit. If he does so while facing more shots and pressure, he will establish himself as one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders.
Statistics and other information obtained at www.nhlnumbers.com, www.hockeydb.com, www.nhl.com, and http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/m_icehockey_rb/2009/MIH%20DI%202009.pdf.
Share your thoughts about the NHL, the Detroit Red Wings, and hockey in general with Rhys at Twitter: @RREsq. He can be reached via email at RhysJRichards@gmail.com. Join the many fans of The Hockey Guys on Facebook and Twitter @TheHockeyGuys