Coming into the season, the Detroit Red Wings were one of just a handful of teams in the league not to have a clear-cut number one starter locked in for the lion’s share of the workload in net. That’s not to say that it was necessarily a bad plan by any means, given what we know about how much more efficient rested goaltenders are than their tired counterparts.
If anything I suspect there’s too much stock put into the importance of maintaining the conventional dynamic of having a workhorse starter and his prototypical backup that’s only around to spell him on occasion. With how much the position has evolved and the talent pool deepened, there’s no excuse for a team not to have two equally reliable options it can alternate to ensure peak performance during the marathon that is an 82-game season. The benefits of having that depth and versatility far exceeds any awkwardness that may arise from the uncertainty of not knowing whose turn it is. It’s a good problem to have.
Which made the Red Wings preseason plan perfectly reasonable, considering they happened to be blessed with two very functional candidates to start on any given night. Even though the writing may have ultimately been on the wall all along given the organization’s decision to roll with Mrazek in the playoffs last spring, they still seemed determined to at least give the timeshare experiment a chance by having Mrazek and Howard each start 6 of the team’s first 12 games.
The idea was commendable in principle, though it didn’t wind up lasting very long in practice.
What typically happens with open competitions like this one is that someone eventually distinguishes themselves and takes command of the reins for himself. That’s exactly what happened in Detroit, where it certainly didn’t take too long for the younger, cheaper option in Mrazek to do just that. He’s appeared in 14 of their past 17 games, with back-to-backs typically being the only scenarios to wrangle the net away from him. Considering the way he’s played, it’s difficult to quibble with Blashill’s decision to deviate from the committee.
If it weren’t for Braden Holtby’s historically great season to this point, in which he’s doing his best to match the ridiculous gold standard Carey Price set last year, Mrazek would probably be getting more attention as a viable Vezina Trophy candidate. By any objective measure you choose to judge goalie performance with, Mrazek’s resume this year has been amongst the league’s very best. One of those is Nick Mercadante’s adjusted Goals Saved Above Average/60 metric, which essentially compares how a goalie is performing compared to what we’d expect a league average performance to be based on both the number of shots and the types of shots he’s facing at five-on-five:
Not bad company to be keeping, especially when accounting for the fact that guys like Hellebuyck, Reimer, Greiss, and Neuvirth haven’t even started more than half of their team’s games thus far. He has the 3rd highest percentage of quality starts (which are classified as games with a save % above that year’s league average, or above .885 while facing under 20 shots) behind just Holtby and Crawford, and is the only goalie without a single blow-up performance (a start with a save % under .850).
It goes without saying that Mrazek, who’s making just $737,500 this season, has been a tremendously cost-effective asset for the Red Wings to be wielding.
Maybe of more interest here is what the future holds for both parties. In taking full advantage of the spectacular play they’ve been receiving from Mrazek in net this season, the Red Wings have in turn boxed themselves into somewhat of a corner financially moving forward.
For both Mrazek and his bank account this breakout has been well-timed with him being up for a new contract after this year. The team retains a certain level of leverage in negotiations given his RFA status and limited track record at this level, making how they choose to proceed in structuring his next deal fascinating.
One option is to play it safe and give him a bridge-type two-year deal similar to what the Bruins did with Tuukka Rask before the 2010 season, and the Capitals did with Braden Holtby in 2013. The inherent risk taken in doing so is that Mrazek continues something resembling this run of play, and they wind up having to pay for it to an even greater extent the next time they meet to negotiate.
They could also lock him up for the foreseeable future, buying up some future UFA years for cheaper than the going rate on the open market. The issue with doing that is that we know the goaltending position to be one brimming with uncertainty on a year-to-year basis. Generally speaking, it’s not advisable to saddle yourself with a contract that could quickly become an albatross by handing it to a player that carries significantly more risk than his skater counterparts.
In Mrazek’s specific case, there’s also an argument to be made that we don’t necessarily know exactly what he is yet at this level. It typically takes ~3,000 shots from NHL shooters to gauge what a goalie’s true talent level is with any real confidence. Should he start a significant majority of their remaining games this season, he’ll still fall below that threshold for his career by the time the Red Wings need to make that determination.
Not that he’s given us even an inkling of a reason to believe he isn’t the real deal. Since being a rookie at the OHL level as a teenager, he’s pretty thoroughly dominated every single level he’s competed at (spanning six years and four different leagues). Not included below are his exploits at the NHL level, which include being 6th in overall save percentage since being called up for good last fall (.925 in 59 games, only behind Price, Schneider, Holtby, Dubnyk, and Crawford) and more specifically 3rd at five-on-five (behind just Price and Steve Mason).
Whatever his next contract winds up ultimately looking like, it promises to be a decent bump in pay from what he’s currently making. Taking that into account, it’s awfully difficult to envision a scenario in which there’s a place for Jimmy Howard on this team’s books. The money and term left on his contract (3 years with a cap hit of $5.275, but a de-escalating salary each year) isn’t necessarily prohibitive for a goalie that’s not particularly old and has shown extended stretches of being excellent at stopping pucks.
The issue is that he’s been trending downwards in the past couple of seasons, and hasn’t quite looked the same since his groin issues started cropping up. I imagine the Red Wings would’ve loved to have at least given him a chance to show he’s fully healthy, put some good tape out there for potentially interested teams to see, and, in turn, boost his stock around the league. But with the logjam nature of the Atlantic Division and Mrazek’s outstanding play forcing their hand, they haven’t been able to do that. There’s still teams like that may view him as an intriguing buy-low candidate if he’s available for peanuts, but it’s tough not to lament how much his value has depreciated from Detroit’s perspective.
That’s a bridge which they’ll eventually have to cross this summer. But for now, the Red Wings have their sights set on extending that remarkable postseason streak of theirs. With the way he’s been playing through the first half of the season, Petr Mrazek is giving them every chance to do just that.