You either love him or you hate him. He’s the reason your team lost the game, or he completely stole a victory. His replacement is always far more popular than he is. He is a starting goalie, and for the Detroit Red Wings, that man is Jimmy Howard.
The 35-year-old is a veteran of 10 full seasons of NHL work. In that time, he has climbed the ranks among American-born goaltenders to eighth with 244 wins. However, the team whose crease he occupies now is far different from the one he rose to fame with. These Red Wings are trending younger, and Howard is only getting older.
Despite representing the Red Wings at last season’s All-Star Game, his final goals-against average (GAA) was the worst mark of his career. Per Hockey-Reference, Howard also had the worst penalty kill save percentage (SV%) of his career. Sure, these stats could be a reflection of the team in front of him, but it’s also likely that he is experiencing some regression.
The Old Howard, Not the Howard of Old
Generally speaking, hockey players begin to decline in their mid-30s. There are outliers to every rule, but this one tends to hold true. Look no further than Ryan Miller of the Anaheim Ducks. Once one of the best in the league, Miller is now a high-end backup despite sitting atop the wins category for American netminders.
When former general manager Ken Holland inked Howard to a one-year deal in the spring, it was understood that the goal was to stabilize the position heading into the 2019-20 season. Beyond next season, the Red Wings already have four goalies signed.
Backup Jonathan Bernier seemed to find his groove towards the end of last season. Calvin Pickard signed a two-year deal to solidify the crease for the Grand Rapids Griffins, with Detroit as a possibility as well. Top goalie prospect Filip Larsson will begin the season in Grand Rapids, where he finishes the season is up to him; and Kaden Fulcher got into a period of NHL action last season (to his misfortune). Every single one of these guys are younger than Howard.
In all situations last season, Howard finished with a goals saved above average (GSAA) of .8, according to Corsica Hockey. In other words, he was just a tick above average last season. This fact is mainly attributed to his stellar play during the opening months of the season, prior to the All-Star break.
The season prior, Howard finished with a respectable GSAA of 2.9 in all situations. During the 2016-17 season, he was a strong 6.9. Howard’s level of play is going downhill fast. If the Red Wings would like to wield Howard as trade bait, the clock is ticking. While he might have been able to push for another team’s starting role, it’s more likely that he would be nothing more than an insurance policy.
People respect those players who play their entire career with one team. No matter what happens with Howard, his legacy will don a winged-wheel forever. It seemed inevitable after a trade failed to materialize last season that he would re-sign.
It’s realistic to think that this season will be Howard’s last with the Red Wings. With Bernier and Pickard both under contract for the 2020-21 season, he would have to reverse the effects of aging to lay claim to Detroit’s crease again. Perhaps this will allow him to chase a Stanley Cup with a team better suited to contend for it.
As for the Red Wings, building for the future is their first priority. There’s still work to be done, but eventually the Red Wings will contend in the playoffs again. The glimpse into the future is bright, but it does not include Howard between the pipes.