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.
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.
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.