By now, a majority of the Detroit Red Wings fan base is aware that the coach Mike Babcock and his staff have a full-blown goaltender controversy on their hands heading in to the playoffs. This controversy seems to have emerged out of the blue. On January 10th, the day Howard was injured, Howard had a 16-7-7 record with a 2.11 GAA and a .920 SV%. Of goaltenders who had played at least 30 games by that point, Howard had the 6th best save percentage. He was named to the NHL All-Star team and most felt that it was rightfully deserved.
Howard in 2014 vs. Howard in 2015
Fast forward to April 12th and Detroit’s goaltending picture has radically changed. From January 11th to present, Howard has a 7-6-4 record with a 2.99 GAA and a .896 SV%. Petr Mrazek on the other hand is 10-6-1 with a 2.43 GAA with a .920 SV%. Since March 1st, Mrazek’s save percentage has jumped to .936% while Howard’s has dropped to .893%. So who do you roll with in the playoffs? Do you turn to the 30-year old veteran with 45 games of playoff experience? Or do you roll the dice with the 23-year old kid who has the 7th highest save percentage in the entire NHL since March 1st?
The Osgood-Hasek Situation
I’ve seen a lot of Red Wings fans liken the current goaltending controversy to the 2007-2008 season when Chris Osgood eventually supplanted Dominik Hasek in the playoffs and helped lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup. That season, Dominik Hasek went down with an injury and when he returned, Osgood and Hasek spent the better portion of the second half of the season alternating starts. On the surface, that situation somewhat resembles what the Red Wings have going on this year. However, that 07-08 team was leaps and bounds better than this current team and both Osgood and Hasek were strong veteran netminders.
Down the stretch, both Osgood and Hasek struggled with their save percentage, but got the wins, almost the exact opposite of this season where Mrazek has posted a strong save percentage but has been unable to get wins.
From March 1st, 2008 to April 6th, 2008
You can see that both goaltenders posted similar numbers down the stretch, making that situation a bit of a tossup. Babcock elected to go with Hasek, but after four games turned it over to Osgood. Can the Wings really afford to wait for one of their goalies to falter before switching to the other? Most likely not, meaning that Babcock is really going to have to think about this decision before anointing a starter.
The Salary Cap Dilemma
I’ve seen a pretty decisive split between Red Wings fans about what to do here. Half of the fan base seems to want to start Howard, but if he falters in Game 1, turn over the reins to Mrazek. The other half just wants to roll with Mrazek from the get-go. However, the decision to start Mrazek or Howard will have to include more than just their play of late. Unfortunately, hockey is a business and contracts are going to be brought up. Howard is currently under contract through the 2018-2019 season at a cap hit of $5.3 million. Mrazek on the other hand is under contract through next season at a cap hit of $569,000 and will be a restricted free agent in the 2015-2016 offseason.
If you elect to start Mrazek and he succeeds, what becomes of Howard? You have a 30-year old goaltender who will have put together back-to-back disappointing regular seasons who still has four years at a $5.3 million cap hit remaining. Can Howard be dealt? There are plenty of teams in need of goaltending, but what would the return be? I can’t imagine the Wings getting a significant haul back, but maybe a team like Winnipeg, Dallas, or Edmonton would be willing to make a move for him.
If you elect to start Howard, you only prolong the goaltender controversy through next season. Gustavsson clearly won’t be back, but both Howard and Mrazek will be under contract for next season and Mrazek will be a restricted free agent. Depending on how he plays next season, Mrazek likely will earn a significant raise. For years, the Red Wings always got by my investing in cheap goaltending and spending their money next year. What happens if the Wings have close to $9 million tied up just in goaltending? Ken Holland won’t allow that.
Who Gets The Start?
As you can see, there is far more going into this decision than just the play of both goaltenders. If it was based solely on that, you can easily see why Mrazek would get the start. However, life becomes incredibly complicated for Ken Holland if that happens. I think the ideal scenario for the Red Wings would be for Howard to start and lead the Wings on a deep playoff run. It re-establishes the goalie hierarchy, provides motivation for Mrazek to get better, and re-invigorates Howard for next season. It lets Holland delay this decision until next offseason or quietly shop Howard this offseason. For that reason, I do think that Babcock tabs Howard to start the playoffs and give him one more chance to take the bull by the horns.
In my personal opinion, I think that decision is best. If the Wings start Mrazek and he succeeds, you have to move Howard. However, the market for backup goaltenders is pretty sparse this offseason, especially a backup who would be capable of stepping in for a string of games if Mrazek struggles with his consistency which has been an issue this season. I think it’s better to ride with the goalie tandem for one more season, and make the final call on Howard in the 2016 offseason.
Data from War-On-Ice