When the Detroit Red Wings traded Petr Mrazek earlier this season, it wasn’t the end of an era as much as it was the end of an idea. The idea, of course, being that the former fifth-round pick would take over as the team’s No. 1 goalie as Jimmy Howard rode off into the sunset.
We got a sneak peek at that shift in course last summer when Ken Holland chose to protect Howard instead of Mrazek during the expansion draft. It seemed like only a matter of time before the former goalie of the future was traded away for futures, and that came to fruition in February when the Philadelphia Flyers’ goaltending depth was rocked by injury.
That trade left Howard behind as the starter, and Jared Coreau as the backup; not exactly the setup Detroit envisioned in 2014 when Mrazek was brought up to challenge for playing time. Things don’t always go according to plan in sports, though, so Mrazek not panning out isn’t particularly shocking.
It’s unfortunate for the Red Wings, sure. But it’s not like this was a former first- or second-round pick bombing out. What is a bit more perplexing is that Holland really hadn’t taken many steps to insulate the team in case Mrazek never became one of the 30 or 35 best goalies in the NHL.
All of the proverbial eggs were seemingly placed in the Mrazek succession plan, and even when that route started to appear hilly, the Red Wings didn’t respond. Cap space wasn’t there to make a play for any top-end free agent options, and Detroit has generally been shy about utilizing high draft picks — we’re talking in the first three rounds here — on netminders.
With Mrazek gone and Howard turning 35 next season, there’s reason to be concerned about the position as the Red Wings continue their rebuild. A team can have a rock solid defensive core plus a strong group of scorers and still miss the playoffs if goaltending isn’t at least at a league-average level. Just ask the Carolina Hurricanes, who have had stellar underlying numbers for a few years now, but can’t get over the hump due to sub-par netminding.
The Hurricanes began the season & if Darling were an average goalie they were an 88 to 94 point team; if Peters/Brind’Amour did a A- job of fwd deployment they were a 90 to 98 point team (arguably up to 100 points).
— Doug Abrams (@dabrams2021) April 3, 2018
The problem at hand here is that there doesn’t appear to be a goalie in the system ready to make the leap if (when) Howard’s skills begin to inevitably erode due to age. We could see him continue to play well for another year or two, but when a franchise’s top goalie is 34, you’d hope to have a clear idea of who could be in line for that top spot.
Make no mistake: if Howard suffers any kind of lengthy injury in 2018-19, the Red Wings are going to be in a bad way as far as netminding goes. Coreau hasn’t done anything at the NHL level to indicate that he’d be capable of starting for five, six or seven straight contests as Howard recovered.
Here’s why that’d be a nightmare scenario, assuming the Red Wings were actually trying to win hockey games.
Across 20 starts for Detroit over the last two seasons, Coreau has put up an unadjusted save percentage of .878 in all situations. Sixty-eight goalies have played 800 or more minutes over the last two seasons, and literally, none of them have a worse 5-on-5 save percentage than Coreau’s 89.61. In fact, he’s the only netminder from that group to have a SV% lower than 90 percent.
He also hasn’t won a game in regulation as the starter since January of 2017, and he’s allowed four or more goals nine times in his 20 starts. Even the most optimistic of Red Wings fans can’t possibly look at those numbers and think that there’s a legit No. 1 goalie hiding inside the 26-year-old somewhere. There’s not, and there is no clear-cut option to push Coreau off of the roster as we look towards next season.
Tom McCollum has been fine in the AHL, but only has three NHL appearances to his name at the age of 28… and he hasn’t started a game for the Red Wings in three seasons. His .909 SV% in the minors this year doesn’t exactly scream “call me up and give me spot starts!” either.
Perhaps Detroit’s best bet over the next two seasons or so is Matej Machovsky.
They have seven prospects in the system. None of them are NHL-ready, but Matej Machovsky, Kaden Fulcher, Filip Larsson and Keith Petruzzelli all have good potential.
— George Malik (@georgemalik) March 21, 2018
After going undrafted as an official prospect, the 6-foot-2 netminder returned to the Czech Republic and had four outstanding seasons there. He got into his first AHL start this season and has played well at the ECHL level, but the talent gap between those two leagues and the NHL is wide.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Machovsky get a long look at training camp next year, but again, there is very little NHL experience — or goalies who appear to be NHL-ready — waiting behind Howard. We saw Holland snag Keith Petruzzelli in the third round of last year’s draft, and he has a chance to be a special player.
But he’s still at least a few years out, and there’s virtually no safety net in place should Howard falter or get injured. Which should be concerning for Red Wings fans as 2017-18 comes to a close.