The “Success” Of Joey MacDonald May Be Bad For The Detroit Red Wings

Joey MacDonald has taken the #2 goaltending spot. (Icon SMI)

That headline sounds preposterous upon first glance, doesn’t it? How could the high-end play of one of Detroit’s own players harm the team in any way? If Joey MacDonald plays well, it’s a benefit for the team, right? Before you write me off as insane though, let me express my bound-to-be unpopular opinion, because the answer to that inquiry isn’t as straight forward as you might think.

There’s no question MacDonald has outplayed Ty Conklin (who began the season in the backup role) this season, making Monday’s decision to place Conklin on waivers shocking to no one. The expected move makes what I’ve feared clear; The Red Wings have complete confidence that Joey MacDonald will continue to play at this level.

What a level it has been. MacDonald’s numbers are through the roof, triumphantly besting All-Star Jimmy Howard’s season marks in GAA, Sv%, and W% thus far, but before you go thinking that Detroit has as tantalizing a tandem as a team like the St. Louis Blues (Jaroslav Halak & Brian Elliot find themselves among the league’s best in GAA, Sv%, and shutouts) possess, you may want to check in with reality.

Under the guise of stats, Joey MacDonald is an incredible goalie thus far. He’s better than Jimmy Howard. He’s better than Nashville’s Pekka Rinne and Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick. He’s better than almost every goaltender in the NHL. Except that isn’t true. He’s not better than any of those goaltenders, and everyone knows it. No one has even suggested, because it would be pure lunacy to do so. My point is, statistics alone can sure be inaccurate.

Chris Osgood Stanley Cup finals

Chris Osgood won 3 Stanley Cups with Detroit. (Dustin Bradford/Icon SMI)

Over the years Red Wings goalies have been dismissed from discussions of the league’s best on exactly this premise. Chris Osgood receives little credit thanks to the overwhelming notion that he only succeeded because of the team in front of him, and you can steal hear those rumblings of contention at the mention of Jimmy Howard in such conversations today. While I’ve vehemently disagreed with such notions in the past (particularly those two instances), I feel it’s ludicrous to believe anything other than that in this situation.

The Red Wings can make a goaltender look excellent as long as he makes the easy stops, something Conklin failed to do this season, but Joey has managed to succeed at for the most part. MacDonald looks excellent, especially statistically, because of the incredible play of the team around him. The quick recoveries of his poor rebounds, the stick lifts preventing his poorly played pucks from ending up in his own net, even the heroics of Brad Stuart on the door step that we’ve seen consistently this season. The Red Wings have defensively stepped up their game with MacDonald in net.

That increase in play can likely be attributed to a general lack of confidence from the team. When you’ve now placed your 3rd string goalie in net, you’re bound to expect the worst. There’s a reason someone winds up in the #3 spot, and with how atrociously the #2 had played, the team had to be fearing an even less effective goalie while hoping for the best. It is this fear that has driven the team to new defensive heights, and as that fear wanes we may be in store for an unenjoyable consequence.

As the team’s confidence in MacDonald builds, they may unintentionally become lax in their defensive ways, expecting him to make the robbery saves and bail them out, to do what Howard has done all season long. We saw glimpses of this behavior in Sunday’s game against San Jose. At least twice, Sharks forwards entered the zone in the clear, and while MacDonald made the stops, it was the way in which he did so that has me alarmed.

Despite his statistically lofty play, MacDonald has not played well. His rebound control is atrocious. His over-aggressive Tim Thomas-style goaltending leaves the net completely exposed repeatedly throughout the game, and his lack of Thomas-like athleticism means he wont be making any of these saves any time soon.

He has been nothing more than an adequate netminder in his 23 periods of hockey with Detroit this season, and can we even expect that to continue?

MacDonald is the beneficiary of something goaltenders know all too well; It’s easier to play well when you’re playing frequently. What Conklin overwhelmingly did not have on his side is any kind of regular playing schedule (partially to his own fault, and partially due to riding Jimmy Howard’s hot streak (it’s ongoing)). MacDonald had been active as the Griffins starter prior to his call up, and sat for just 1 period before being thrown into the net for the Wings. When his role is reduced to backing up Howard as it will be as early as Tuesday, will he be able to maintain any momentum?

It’s not likely. There’s a reason Joey MacDonald has spent most of his time in the AHL, his NHL numbers have never been anything more than satisfactory until now. While I believe in the ability to change, improve, and persevere, 7 good games started in is hardly a large enough sample size to make such a conclusion, and it would be ridiculous at this time to believe MacDonald is somehow the next Tim Thomas.

Joey MacDonald goalie

Can Joey MacDonald be a reliable backup? (Dave Gainer/THW

When MacDonald is thrown into the net again it will likely be after the February 27th trade deadline, too late to make a move if he falters, or rather, returns to the play he has put forward over the majority of his career. (.902 Sv%, 3.16 GAA in 87 NHL games prior to 2011-12).

God-forbid Jimmy Howard re-injures his finger (he’s undoubtedly rushing his return) or goes down with a completely different injury come the playoffs when things get heated and physical. Detroit will then be forced to throw an easily solvable Joey MacDonald into the net. When a team has faced him for 3 or 4 games in a row solving him will become obvious; pass the puck rink wide, be patient, or make any kind of deke and you’ve got yourself an all but guaranteed goal. No matter how good Detroit plays defensively they’ll be worn down if that’s what they’re forced to do all game long.

The message from Ken Holland seems crystal clear. He wont be looking to add a goaltender before the trade deadline. He has confidence in his current backup, or is perhaps counting on Howard to stay healthy for the rest of the year.

That confidence is misplaced, and preparing for the worst is a necessity in order to succeed.

Here’s to hoping Jimmy Howard isn’t afflicted with any ailments down the stretch.

  • Blackhawkman

    He (Joey) did OK on Tuesday in Columbus too. Yeah, you better try writing about some other stuff*certainly not about goaltenders. 

  • Earl

    I mostly agree, I think Joey’s done well but he’s also been a bit all-over-the-place doing it.  Detroit were playing excellent, playoff-style hockey to preserve the winning streak. It makes any goalie’s job easier.  

    That said, he’s still better than Conklin because mentally he’s competing hard, and Conks hasn’t been up to it for a couple of seasons.  

  • Monica McAlister

    Can’t say I am with you on this one. 

    Just going off of your theory that the team doesn’t have faith playing in front of MacDonald – wouldn’t one think the team didn’t have faith playing in front of Ty Conklin? He never even got the start this season at home. 

    As for the team picking up their defense. They should.  It is that time of year where it’s time to start ramping up to head down the stretch. The defense is there to defend; the goalie should be the last line of defense not your teams sacing grace (check out how things are going in Buffalo).

  • Paul

    Are you concussed or are perhaps were you watching a KHL minor league affiliate and you thought it was the Red Wings???  With 40+ years as a diehard hockey fan and 20-20 vision, I surely see things differently.

  • Daveheyman

    This guy is absolutely mental, Joey Macdonald is a quality
    back up goalie, his rebound  control and
    positioning have been excellent this year. Detroits Dmen are helping him but
    its always a team effort and the chemistry between Macdonald and his defenders
    is obviously fantastic. He is a hybrid goalie who plays aggressive with great

    These bloggers who obviously don’t know the game have too
    much time on there hands  and have
    nothing better to do. I am pretty sure Ken Holland and Mike Babcock know what
    they are doing and do not need advice from this opinionated jack off.


  • SwedishDuDe

    It’s incredible someone from the other side of the planet thinks exactly like me…good job.

  • Paul C Klos

    I not sure I get the logic here? Detroit was more or less going to ride Howard and that is the lay of the land. No team has endless depth everywhere unless they been bad for so long they are rolling in good draft picks for years. I don’t think anyone thinks Joey Mac is anything but what Detroit wanted out of Conklin – a reliable backup not a 1b rotation with Howard (say like Rask and Thomas).

    Nobody is going to hand over a real quality net minder for a bag of pucks so maybe you should suggest what roster player(s) Detroit be willing to part with so we can see what holes you think depth at goal will cost.

  • Jaysmith


  • Paul MacCarthy

    Yes he can make these saves, and wait #30 place team shut-out #1 in the league, Joey Mac was undrafted and signed in ’02 he has one of 60 spots at his position  in the NHL and beat someone out for it…. what have you done lately? hes humble and battled evrey inch to get where he is

  • LeftWingLocked

    I find this article to be quite perplexing. It’s as if the I’m watching different Detroit Red Wings games entirely. While I agree that MacDonald is prone to puck handling gaffes, his rebound control has been quite good the past 7, in so far as he really doesn’t give up many. He has quite the ability to absorb the puck and get the whistle. As an example, Mike Babcock often says that your best penalty killer must often be your goaltender. He’s able to freeze the puck, giving  Detroit the opportunity to ice fresh legs, allow Datsuyk, Helm et al. the opportunity to win defensive zone face-offs, etc. In their last 7 wins, Detroit has allowed 2 PPGs (if I remember correctly). Now, it would be easy to say that it’s all because of stellar defensive play in front of him, but that’s a disingenuous argument, at best. MacDonald has been a big part of the improved PK because he’s freezing the puck and NOT giving up rebounds (even through the traffic of the extra man advantage).

    This underlies the notion that suddenly, the Detroit D has played much BETTER in front of MacDonald than they did in front of Howard. Watch one of the last 7 games and you’ll see bad passes out of the defensive zone by Kindl (in particular), Ericsson (occasionally) and White, Stuart, Kronwall (every once in awhile). Notice also the number of breakaways given up (often while Detroit is on the Belle Tire Power Play) due to overzealous pinches in the offensive zone. These same problems were occurring when Howard was in net and they continue through to MacDonald’s stint in net.

    Finally, what is most absurd is that the argument presented first against MacDonald is that the stats lie. You then go on to use arguments with NO statistical backing…simply what you think or feel might be going on. For example, if I were to say “The Columbus Blue Jackets are the best team in the Central Division. They have depth, skill, outstanding coaching, and an excellent system in place. The statistics that show them otherwise are misleading at best, because they fail to account for all the bad bounces, missed calls, suspensions, and injury woes the team has suffered this season.” I would be laughed at. And rightfully so. That assertion is absurd on its face and flies in the face of the facts. Just like the argument that MacDonald has been pedestrian between the pipes in Detroit. Like it or not, statisticals are a quantifiable way of comparing performances. They aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly better than going off of gestalt.

    Now, is MacDonald going to carry the load down the stretch and into the post season? Absolutely not. But does Detroit now have a reliable back-up to spell Howard, ensuring he’s fresh come the post season. Absolutely. And bringing MacDonald in (as opposed to overpaying for a rent-a-goalie to sit on the bench behind Howard) allows Holland more flexibility to add a depth defenseman and/or forward at the trade deadline.

  • meca

    Wow. Im a goalie and I played junior at a very high level. If you think that Joey hasn’t played well you have clearly spent too much time in front of a computer and not enough time watching and playing hockey. joey has been great (not spectacular but great) and he is a solid back up goalie. Please do us all a favour and go write about basketball or baseball. Hockey isn’t your thing. 

  • Butch

    Ken Holland must feel pretty nervous, what with you obviously knowing more about running a hockey team than he does.  Has Mr Ilitch contacted you yet with an offer of the GM job?

  • CaptHockey

    Wow! That’s 3 minutes of my life I’ll never get back reading this ridiculous article.