Last Saturday the Detroit Red Wings got a boost from the return of goaltender Jonathan Bernier. He was terrific, stopping 30 of 31 shots in his first game action since Jan. 10. And it didn’t even matter. None of it has, lately.
Detroit, on Friday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, were shut out for the third time in four games, with two of those losses coming with Bernier in net. The most recent goose egg counted against backup Jimmy Howard, who stopped 42 of 43 shots, but hasn’t been credited with a win since October.
And sure, the Wings did pick up a 3-1 victory over the league-leading Boston Bruins on Sunday, but it was in large part thanks to the effort from Bernier, who saved 39 of 40 on the afternoon, including several gems on Bruins winger Brad Marchand during an early 5-on-3 power play.
That’s a long-winded way to say this: goaltending is not the Red Wings issue. And yet, with Howard’s run as franchise goaltender coming to an end, it feels like solidifying a long-term solution in net could be an issue.
Bernier is an 11-year vet who’s kept the Red Wings in more games than he’s lost for them this season. He is an excellent stop-gap to ease the decline of the 35-year-old Howard. But, what’s next?
Bernier is under contract through next season, and in an ideal world, the Wings will be in a position to emerge as playoff contenders in the two seasons that follow, meaning that they’ll also hopefully have a franchise goalie in place by that time. And right now, it appears that 2016 sixth-round pick Filip Larsson will be firmly in that conversation. Let’s take a look at what the 21-year-old has been up to as of late.
The start to Larsson’s pro career has been… not good. But that’s no reason to panic about the former University of Denver goaltender, who led his team to a Frozen Four appearance just a season ago, posting a .932 save percentage (SV%) with a 1.95 goals-against average (GAA) during his only season in the NCAA.
Larsson, 21, was regarded as Detroit’s top goaltending prospect entering this season, but has underwhelmed in his inaugural pro campaign. He’s 2-5-0 with a 4.01 GAA and an .843 SV% over seven games with the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins, and has received limited action with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye due to injury. But he did make 27 saves on Friday night to earn his second win of the season for the Walleye, pulling his overall record with the minor-league club to 2-2 (from ‘Walleye pull out OT winner in Cincinnati,’ The Blade, 02/07/2020).
Down in Toledo
The return of Bernier earlier this month pushed Calvin Pickard back down to Grand Rapids, where he’s expected to start a majority of the games for a playoff-contending Griffins team down the stretch, with Pat Nagle serving as the team’s backup. That’ll mean plenty of time in net down in the ECHL for Larsson.
Toledo currently sits nine points back—with five games in hand—of the first-place Cincinnati Cyclones, firmly in position to make a push to the ECHL playoffs. While the Wings would have probably preferred that Larsson caught on at the AHL level this season, there’s a certain benefit to having a young goaltender play meaningful minutes in a league where he can excel.
Two months remain in the Walleye’s schedule, plenty of time — should Larsson stay healthy — for Detroit’s front office to evaluate his next step.
Meanwhile, at Quinnipiac
Larsson is one of a number of Red Wings goalie prospects who allowed general manager Steve Yzerman, in his first draft with Detroit, to avoid selecting a goaltender until the seventh round. But before Larsson, there was Keith Petruzzelli.
The 20-year-old American goaltender, selected 88th overall by the Wings in 2017, was arguably the more prized goaltender in Detroit’s pipeline before Larsson’s emergence in Denver. But even in the years since Larsson has stolen the shine, Petruzzelli has continued to heat up.
He’s made all 27 starts for Quinnipiac University this season, with a 2.13 GAA and a SV% of .917, adding to a sophomore season that saw a steady increase in both numbers (2.42 GAA, .904 SV%). As the 16th-ranked Bobcats prepare to make a run at the postseason, Petruzzelli remains a prime candidate to potentially steal the show at April’s Frozen Four in Detroit.
Back to Bernier
While the Red Wings wait for a number of intriguing goaltending prospects to develop, the organization should consider itself lucky to have the sure-handed Bernier in net while the rest of the team continues to struggle. As it stands right now, barring any sort of trade, Detroit will have at least one reliable dimension of its game in order through next season. The only question that remains, is which youngster will get the chance to continue that trend?
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Nolan Bianchi is a Detroit sportswriter covering every major local professional sports team for The Detroit News and host of the Locked On Red Wings podcast.