Terry Sawchuk’s name is enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and his jersey hangs in the rafters of Little Caesars Arena. He leads the Detroit Red Wings in goaltending wins with 350.
Behind him is Chris Osgood, who is something of a local legend given his role in three Red Wing championships, with 317 wins.
Third on that list? Jimmy Howard, who has 246 victories to his name.
Despite his proximity to those grand figures in Red Wing lore, Howard’s star never burned nearly as bright. It all came crashing down during the 2019-20 campaign, where the 36-year-old posted the worst season in his professional career. Now that the door is closed on the Red Wings’ season, it appears that Howard’s time in Detroit is about over, too. (From “‘I Want to Keep Playing’: Jimmy Howard Knows Days in Detroit Might Be Numbered” The Detroit News – 6/5/20)
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It’s not every year that you get to witness the end of an era. Howard was a full-time member of the Red Wings for 11 seasons, most of which he was the team’s top option in net. It all started with a little luck on the second day of the 2003 draft.
Draft and Develop
With the 64th pick of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the Red Wings selected Howard out of the University of Maine. The native of Syracuse, New York would go on to post 15 shutouts and a .932 save percentage (SV%) during his time in Maine. To this date, Howard has the best career SV%, and goals-against average (GAA) in school history.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, Howard made the transition to professional hockey in 2005-06. He shared goaltending duties with Joey MacDonald on a stacked Grand Rapids Griffins team that lost out in the Conference Final. Howard had a 27-6-2 record, as well as a .910 SV%, all at the age of 21. His performance warranted a call-up to the big club, where he played in four games.
Howard played three more seasons with the Griffins as the team’s No. 1 goaltender. He never had more than 21 victories in those seasons, and the Griffins even missed the playoffs during the 2007-08 season. Confidence in him throughout the organization dwindled down to the point where then-general manager Ken Holland felt compelled to select a goaltender (Tom McCollum) with the 30th overall pick in 2008.
The Year of Opportunity
The Red Wings entered the 2009-10 season as repeat Western Conference champions thanks, in part, to the efforts of Chris Osgood. The 37-year-old once against assumed the role of the Red Wings’ top goaltender, but this season he had a young, inexperienced backup in Howard. The 25-year-old had only played in nine NHL games, but the organization would have had to expose him to waivers if they assigned him to the AHL.
However, as Osgood struggled to show consistency during that season, Howard grabbed the opportunity. By the end of December 2009, the Red Wings’ hierarchy in net had shifted – Howard was THE starter in Detroit.
Howard finished the 2009-10 season with a 37-15-10 record, a .924 SV%, and an impressive 23.06 goals saved above average (GSAA). The Red Wings defeated the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round, but lost in just five games to the San Jose Sharks in Round 2.
Despite the disappointing end, Howard had established himself as a true starter in the NHL. He placed second for the Calder Trophy as the league’s Rookie of the Year (won by Tyler Myers) and also received votes for the Vezina Trophy.
The list of backup goalies for the Red Wings for the next few years was Osgood, Joey MacDonald, Ty Conklin and Jonas Gustavsson. The fewest amount of games Howard played during this span of time was 42, and that was during the lockout-shortened 48-game 2012-13 season. Needless to say, the Red Wings leaned heavily on their top goaltender.
From 2011 to 2013, Howard posted an elite quality-start percentage (QS%) of .616. Despite this, the Red Wings couldn’t get past the second round of the playoffs. Perhaps the biggest disappointment came during the second round of the 2013 postseason.
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The Red Wings held a 3-1 series lead on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning and eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks – their bitter rival. With a SV% of .924 and a QS% of .786, he did everything he could to vault his team into the Conference Final, but the Blackhawks sealed the comeback, and effectively closed the Red Wings’ championship window.
Meanwhile, a young goalie selected by the Red Wings in the fifth round of the 2010 draft quickly became the talk of the town in 2013. At just 21 years old, Petr Mrazek joined the Griffins and helped lead them to their first Calder Cup championship. By the 2014-15 season, he not only joined the Red Wings, but he started all seven of the team’s playoff games.
At just 30 years of age, Howard had lost his place as the team’s top goaltender. He played just 63 games over the next two seasons despite being the highest-paid goalie on the roster. This is right around when message boards and comment sections began filling up with calls for the Red Wings to move on from the veteran.
Despite all of this, Howard and his game underwent a bit of a renaissance during the 2016-17 season. He finished the season with just 26 games played, but a solid 2.10 GAA and .927 SV%. This, mixed with Mrazek’s sudden inconsistency, led to the Red Wings protecting Howard during the 2017 Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft.
From 2017 and on, Howard found himself on Red Wing rosters that were unlike any of the others he played with before. Suddenly, the Red Wings were struggling to keep pace with the rest of the NHL. Despite a QS% of .534 from 2017 to 2019, he couldn’t escape the regression of an aging body and a dwindling roster.
The last two seasons saw Howard serving in tandem with Jonathan Bernier. During the 2018-19 season, trade rumors surrounded Howard as his contract entered the final year of its duration. However, with Bernier struggling to adapt to his new surroundings and a lack of legitimate interest, the team opted to retain Howard with a one-year extension.
And that takes us to this season. It was an abysmal year for Howard, and the team in general. With just two wins through 27 games, he failed to string together any kind of success, allowing Bernier to snatch the starting role from him. With the conclusion of the Red Wings’ 2019-20 season upon us, it seems that the transition from Howard to Bernier is complete.
A Legacy of “Almost”
Jimmy Howard was almost forgotten by the Red Wings before he took the starting job and ran with it during the 2009-10 season. Then, he almost won the Calder Trophy. The next few years were filled with attempts to break through to the Conference Final, and it almost came to fruition during the 2012-13 season.
Howard was again almost booted off of the Red Wings’ roster once Petr Mrazek came to town. However, he re-focused himself and eventually took the role back from Mrazek. A happy ending to the veteran’s career was almost obtainable.
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And yet, Howard always had his critics. He was named an NHL All-Star three times in his career, but you’ll be forgiven if that’s not how you remember him. What’s more likely is that you’ll remember him as the goalie that perfectly reflects the teams he played on: filled with talent, but unable to clutch up in the big moments.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.