Heading into the 2015/2016 season, the most oft-discussed (and heated) debate among Red Wings fans was that of the goaltending situation. Would Petr Mrazek take over the starting role from Jimmy Howard once and for all, or would the seasoned netminder regain his form and get back the crease?
As there was little else to discuss in the offseason, we debated this topic ad-nauseam on the Winged Wheel Podcast. The prevailing opinion among listeners (and Red Wings fans in general) was that Petr Mrazek was not only the future of the franchise between the pipes but that he should maintain his starting job that he won from Howard at the end of last season. Being somewhat of a “Jimmy Howard apologist”, I was not so hasty to make that switch. My hesitation was not to discredit Mrazek and everything he had achieved, but rather due to a steadfast belief in Jimmy Howard’s potential as a top NHL goalie.
Five months into the season, I could not have been more wrong. Petr Mrazek has not only become the bonafide starter in net for the Detroit Red Wings – Petr Mrazek has made a case as a candidate for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goaltender in the National Hockey League.
By the beginning of February, Mrazek was the league leader in Save Percentage (.933) and Goals Against Average (1.97), as well as being fourth overall in Shutouts (4) through 36 games between the pipes. Even after a few high scoring games, he is currently posting a Save % of .928 (3rd) and a GAA of 2.07 (2nd) through 42 GP. In a Vezina race that was widely considered to be a shoo-in for Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, Petr Mrazek has emerged as not only a viable candidate but a possible winner.
When Carey Price won both the Vezina Trophy and the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) in the 2014/2015 season, there was not one fan, player, media member or otherwise who disputed his achievements. He posted the most dominant season by a goaltender that the NHL had seen in ages, and was the biggest factor in Montréal’s success that season. To emphasize how much of their success was based on his play: they entered the playoffs with the least amount of goals scored by any playoff team (221) while also allowing the fewest goals against of any playoff team (189). Though one may imply that the defence had a big part in this, a quick look at the number of shots the he faced (5th most of any goaltender, ~30 per game) dissuades that theory.
The point of highlighting Carey Price’s stellar campaign last year is not necessarily to draw the comparison to Petr Mrazek (though there are a couple of similarities that we will get to later), but rather to provide contrast to Braden Holtby’s season. Holtby is having an undoubtedly fantastic year and is currently one of the league’s top goaltenders – nobody should dispute that. However, if one were to take a look at the team in front of him, it becomes extremely apparent that he is not playing under the same set of circumstances as Petr Mrazek.
Through 59 games, the Washington Capitals have a record of 44-10-4 (92 points), which puts them on pace for roughly 61.15 wins and 127.86 points. To demonstrate how effective this campaign has been for the Capitals, the 95/96 Detroit Red Wings currently hold the record for most wins in an NHL regular season (80 games at the time) with 62, having totalled 131 points during that period. The Washington Capitals are not simply having a good season… they are having a potentially historic season. They are scoring at a league-best clip of 3.34 goals per game while also allowing the fewest goals against and maintaining the best goal differential in the NHL. Even taking a quick look at their roster, there does not seem to be a position in which they are deficient or lacking. There are a slew of other statistics and inferences that can be drawn to further my point, however it is clear to any hockey fan at this point that the Washington Capitals’ success, though in part due to Braden Holtby, comes from every facet of their system.
Petr Mrazek has not had the benefit of the same team success that Braden Holtby – or nearly any other Vezina candidate – has had. The Detroit Red Wings have struggled to score this season, with key offensive contributors slumping often. Through 61 games, they have the fewest goals-for of any Eastern Conference playoff team, and 2nd-fewest across both conferences. Defensively, they have been just as stagnant, allowing the 2nd-most goals-against of any Eastern Conference playoff team, and 4th-most in the league. Just to beat a dead horse, the Red Wings also have the worst goal differential of any other playoff-positioned team in the NHL at this juncture.
Despite his lack of support from the team in front of him, Mrazek’s play has him among the league’s best this year, managing a record of 23-11-6. Any Red Wings fan will be quick to tell you just how instrumental Mrazek has been in each of those 23 wins. Playing in more 1 goal games than anybody else this season, Detroit has not given him much goal support. Mrazek ranks 43rd in the league in terms of goal support from his team, 4th last among goaltenders who have played at least 40 games (Holtby is 7th, 1st among goalies with 40+ GP).
Statistics aside, a simple eye-test will tell you just how crucial Petr Mrazek has been to Detroit’s success this season. Game after game, he makes more than just the routine saves – he wins entire games. He makes the saves that nobody expects a goalie to make. Just the other night, in Detroit’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators, he countered a clear breakaway from Bobby Ryan in overtime with one of the saves of the year. In a game against the Washington Capitals last November, he preserved a 1-0 shutout by stopping each and every one of Alexander Ovechkin’s 15 shots against him.
There is no clear-cut Vezina winner (à la Carey Price) this year. Other names that should be considered (outside of Holtby and Mrazek) are Corey Crawford and Corey Schneider, with the latter making a strong case under similar circumstances as Petr Mrazek. However, if Mrazek maintains his pace and success throughout the rest of the season (and Detroit makes the playoffs), he should be a premier candidate for the award – and he deserves it.