5 things: The Jimmy Howard question

1. Facing reality

Okay so here we are, dealing with a situation in which the Detroit Red Wings have their No. 1 goaltender and it is very clearly not the guy they’re paying close to $5.3 million against the cap until 2019.

This happens occasionally: A team will have a good goalie signed for a while and then someone new comes along and makes them say, “Ah, hmm, well we can’t let that other guy be the goalie any more.” Except in the case of Roberto Luongo and the tire fire situation that led him out of Vancouver (and the Canucks going from having three apparently viable goaltenders to maybe one in the course of like 150 games), it’s also not personal.

But the problem persists: Everyone now seems to recognize that Petr Mrazek is having one of the best seasons of any goaltender this year, and has a .925 career save percentage on nearly 1,900 shots against. This isn’t exactly the most concrete case for a goalie to be hailed as any sort of heir apparent, because it’s only 71 games, but even now, it’s starting to look like a pretty solid and sufficiently convincing start.

Craig Custance, as he so often does, had a great look at Mrazek’s season to date and also his future prospects for success. In short, very few goalies have this sort of success this early in their careers; in NHL history only 11 goalies (including Mrazek) have save percentages of better than .920 over the first five or so partial seasons of their careers. That list includes: Anton Khudobin, Cory Schneider, Tuukka Rask, Cam Talbot, Chris Mason, Braden Holtby, Roberto Luongo, Pekka Rinne, Dominik Hasek, and Ben Bishop.

Not bad company at all, but again you have to note that among that list Mrazek has faced relatively few shots. The number will continue to go up this season, because there’s no way he stops being the No. 1 guy unless something goes very wrong, and also in that respect it’s very unlikely that his career save percentage dips down to less than that .920 mark.

All of which leaves Howard on the outside looking in.

2. So what to do?

That leaves the Red Wings with something of a conundrum. If you’re not going to be playing Howard — and again, at this point why would you? — you can’t carry a $5.3 million backup in good conscience. The team has some pretty hefty cap commitments going into next season, for example, and a lot of guys hitting free agency. 

Obviously they’re not going to bring back every on of their UFAs (so long, Darren Helm!) but the cap allocation on this team is supremely weird as-is. They have just five forwards on non-entry-level contracts for 2016-17, though that will change this summer, the same number as defensemen. Riley Sheahan and Teemu Pulkkinen need new deals, as does Danny Dekeyser. And, of course, Mrazek.

And yet they have more than $54 million tied up in just 14 guys right now. Offloading Howard goes a long way toward dealing with that issue in a meaningful way and maybe re-tooling things for the future.

3. Something to think about

Again, it’s impossible to justify carrying a backup as expensive as Howard. Even if you’re comfortable going right up against the cap, this isn’t a good situation, and this is a team that might need that re-tooling in the very near future.

Next year is the final one of Pavel Datsyuk’s contract. Henrik Zetterberg ain’t getting any younger. Who knows what happens when other guys on this club hit their over-30 walls. Money’s coming off the books anyway, and so from that perspective maybe you don’t care about Howard for the immediate future because there are bigger things to worry about.

But every year, or even month, he’s not a starter for you, he starts to look like a less viable option for other teams as well. This is not a Luongo situation where his coach clearly just prefers the other guy (even after trading a top-level goalie who was supposed to be the Mrazek to his Howard), but rather one of a good goaltender apparently going belly-up.

Google Jimmy Howard these days and you’ll find a bunch of articles basically saying, “What’s wrong with Jimmy Howard?” “Jimmy Howard has clearly had something go very wrong,” and “Jimmy Howard says he’s going to get it back together soon (maybe).”

There may be a real chance the recovery never happens, but you might just feel you gotta let the guy work his way out of it.

4. The obvious problem

Of course, the issue here is that there are very few teams that have the cap space, let alone the inclination, to trade anything for a goalie that expensive who has been delivering performances of the quality Howard has for half a season at this point.

Not that .909 is bad in and of itself — it’s not good, but it’s passable for a backup — but it follows two straight seasons of .910 over 100-plus performances. Maybe if you’re Detroit you hope you’ll he rediscovers his game in the three or four starts he gets each month, but boy that’s a big gamble. You’d have to find a real sucker to take him off your hands for anything even remotely meaningful.

It might therefore get to a point at which there’s no recourse but for the Wings to take a big gulp and swallow some of the money on his deal. Even at half the freight, that’s still an expensive backup for another team to take on, but it’s certainly better than almost $5.3 million. But someone, somewhere, might be interested in a reclamation project at $2.65 million or so.

This is a contract that simply cannot be carried responsibly by a team with even faint hopes of being a legitimate playoff team on an annual basis going forward. Given what Mrazek’s likely to get on his next contract, how do you justify paying $9 million, for example, on two goalies?

But if you can’t find any buyers, can you justify giving up something you value (a mid-level pick or prospect?) to convince someone to take him off your hands? Or do you take another problem contract, potentially a worse one, back instead?

5. What’s left?

Of those two options, if this is some sort of binary proposition, the only reasonable answer is take back a problem contract and hope whichever player that ends up being delivers unto you some sort of value even if it’s not commensurate with his pay.

The Wings are, frankly, a team that should be stockpiling assets for what could be a tough transition to their post-Datsyuk years. I’m not entirely convinced the first dozen or whatever games of the year in which they looked dreadful without him are any sort of real peek at the future, but it’s just so hard to replace even old Hall of Famers, which is what both he and Zetterberg are. Clearing out Howard might, again, seem not so important in light of that, because those two retirements alone (whenever they happen) clear a lot of cap obligations.

But something simply has to be done here. The status quo is not tenable, because Mrazek looks like a real keeper among keepers.