January 04 2017 06:42AM
Last season, fans were calling for Jimmy Howard to be traded. His mediocre play as the Red Wings starting goaltender had been holding the team back for the last couple of years. And, when he fell to injury, backup Petr Mrazek rose to the occasion, posting a .951 SV% and 1.31 GAA through January and the first half of February.
Now that the Wings had a young goalie with a high ceiling, there was no need for the aging Jimmy Howard and his $5.3 million cap hit. Unfortunately, his contract doesn’t come off the books until 2019-20. Due to this, Howard was deemed “untradable”.
As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise for the Red Wings. Jimmy Howard has been the strongest player on the team with stats that rank him with the best goalies in the league. Before falling to an MCL Sprain that is keeping him out 4-6 weeks, he was making a strong case for himself as a Vezina Trophy candidate.
A New Jimmy Howard
The season started exactly how everyone thought that it would: with Petr Mrazek in the starter’s net. Howard didn’t get his first start until the fourth game of the season, where he stole a victory from the opposing New York Rangers. In a game where the Red Wings only managed 18 shots on net to the Rangers 33, Howard was the deciding factor. He held the Rangers to a single goal, posting a .970 SV% and being named the first star of the game.
In his second game with the team three days later, Howard posted a 30 save shutout against the San Jose Sharks. Since then, it’s been good game after good game for Howie whose save percentage has only dipped under .920 four times in 17 games.
Howard has always shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, but they’ve only come in short spurts of two or three games. Then his play would recede and he’d have to find his game again. This season’s consistency is new from Howard, whose career save percentage is .915 and whose previous best season was in 2009-10 when he posted a .924 SV% and 2.26 GAA.
This season he’s blowing his previous career high out of the water, but is it good enough to be considered Vezina-worthy? Looking at the recent history of Vezina winners indicates that it is.
The Vezina Hall of Fame
The above lists the stats for all of the goalies that have won the Vezina Trophy since the 2004-05 lockout. Looking at their save percentages and goals against averages, Howard’s play this year absolutely fits in. It’s even better than Braden Holtby’s performance last year.
Where Howard’s odds start to breakdown are in the wins column. Scaling Howard’s games played to the average number of games played of all the goalies above, he is still only on pace to win 19 games. If he were to win, it would be lowest win percentage a goalie has had to win the Vezina Trophy since the last lockout.
In addition to this, these goalies were all on teams that won their divisions and had good playoff odds, in large part due to the goalie’s contribution. The only goalie to win whose team didn’t make the playoffs was Sergei Bobrovsky in 2012-13. Of course a goalie alone can’t carry a team to a postseason appearance, but being part of a winning team is important to Vezina candidacy. And, as they stand now, the Red Wings playoff chances are looking more and more dismal, especially when compared to teams who currently have Vezina-worthy goalies.
Not only do Howard’s wins this season not stack up with past Vezina winners, they are far from competitive with this season’s candidates. Leading the Vezina race, both Sergei Bobrovsky and Devan Dubnyk have been pivotal in their team's dominant performances through the first half of the season. Bobrovsky has led the Columbus Blue Jackets to 24 wins and Dubnyk has been between the pipes for 19 Minnesota Wild victories. In Montreal, Carey Price has posted 18 wins with the Canadiens.
Howard’s five wins are an embarrassment compared to these other starting goalies, especially considering that his other stats are just as good or, in the case of Carey Price, better.
This is where the narrative comes into play. Bobrovsky led a team who many had finishing in the basement of the Eastern Conference to a franchise record winning streak. Dubnyk turned the Wild from a bubble team to a Division contender. Price is the source of the Canadiens’ heart and confidence. Jimmy Howard? Sure he had a strong season, but it’s not like he could keep the playoff streak alive.
This is where the team in front of him is really going to let down Howard on a personal level. In the best season of his career, one where he’s really competing with the best goalies in the league, his team can’t manage to score enough goals to win games. With a 1.65 GA/GP (the lowest of the goalies listed above), Howard can’t steal any more games for this team. It’s up to the offense to back him up and provide him with the goal support needed to win games.
MCL Sprain Could Put End To Howard’s Vezina Dreams
When Howard was crashed into in the second period of Detroit’s December 20th game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was abundantly clear that this was a serious injury. The way he reached for his knee, writhing in pain, was a clear sign that his elite season would be cut short.
It was later revealed that Howard sprained his MCL and would be missing four to six weeks, which almost always means an additional one to two weeks. The injury couldn’t come at a worse time for Howard or the Red Wings who were benefitting from him being their best player so far this season.
Before the injury, the only hope Howard had of being considered for the Vezina was if the Red Wings went on a tear with him in net and secured themselves a playoff spot. By the time Howard returns from injury sometime in February, the Red Wings playoff chances will be even smaller, especially if Mrazek and Grand Rapids call up Jared Coreau continue their average to below-average play. If Howard can make a difference upon his return, though, then maybe he has an outside shot at the prestigious goaltending award.
Don’t count on it, though. The Hockey Gods have not been kind to any of the Detroit Red Wings this season.