Howard, 31, isn’t clear no. 1 goalie anymore

It was the grizzled old umpire Nestor Chylak who might have been talking about any number of positions in pro sports, but he was specifically referring to his brethren in blue.

“They expect an umpire to be perfect on Opening Day and to improve as the season goes on.”

Nestor could have been talking about being a goaltender in the NHL. More directly, being a goalie in Detroit.

In the NFL, the best quarterback is the backup. Same thing in hockey with goalies.

Jimmy Howard is 31 years old, will turn 32 before next season is completed, and wasn’t he just a young whippersnapper?

Wasn’t Howard, a couple of blinks ago, the guy who was taking over for Chris Osgood and had his whole NHL career in front of him?

Wasn’t Howard going to be the next goalie to lead the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup? Joining Mike Vernon, Osgood (twice) and Dominik Hasek as Cup-winning goalies since 1997?

Wasn’t Howard that kid from the University of Maine who was going to be the first American-born goalie to win a Cup in Detroit?

That probably wasn’t a fair expectation, but who says the fans—and their expectations—are fair?

It probably wasn’t fair because Howard didn’t have the team in front of him that those Cup-winning goalies had in Detroit.

Howard became full-time goalie of the Red Wings when the team began a transition from a veteran-laden, Hall of Fame-sprinkled roster to a younger, more homegrown version that relied very little on big free agent splashes.

But Howard didn’t have chopped liver in front of him, either.

Not once did Howard lead the Red Wings past the second round of the playoffs since assuming the netminding duties in 2010, and fair or not, that has been his legacy in Detroit.

Now Howard is 31 and it looks like he’s yesterday’s news.

The new Red Wings coach is Jeff Blashill and while he hasn’t said so publicly, there is nonetheless a deep feeling that when the boys gather for training camp in Traverse City in September, it won’t be fait accomplit for the coach to write in Howard’s name as no. 1 on the depth chart.

The best goalie in Detroit is so often the one sitting on the end of the bench wearing a baseball cap.

Petr Mrazek is the fans’ darling right now. Lots of that feeling comes from the simple fact that his DNA isn’t Jimmy Howard’s.

Mrazek isn’t Howard and that alone qualifies Petr as being the no. 1 guy, if you listen to sports talk radio and read the comments section of newspaper websites.

Mrazek was named the starting goalie in last spring’s playoffs by then-coach Mike Babcock, and that decision only added fuel to the “Howard is on his way out” fire.

Mrazek played well in the playoffs, shutting out the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning twice in the seven-game, first round loss. And Mrazek was the better goalie down the stretch, as Howard battled back from a groin injury.

But is Mrazek, at age 23, ready to assume the reins as the no. 1 guy in Detroit?

Howard is signed through the 2018-19 season at a cap hit of about $5.3 million per year. Mrazek is signed through the upcoming season at a cap hit of about $550,000.

That’s the new math of pro sports these days. You don’t just make decisions based on performance or merit anymore. You have to take into consideration a player’s contract status.

It’s one thing to say, “Start Mrazek!”

It’s another thing to actually do something with Jimmy Howard.

The Red Wings won’t pay Howard $5.3 million a year to be Petr Mrazek’s backup. Anyone who thinks that is delusional to the extreme.

But what is Howard’s trade value?

Howard will turn 32 in March. He doesn’t have a playoff resume that you would write home about. He has never really “stolen” a playoff series. He continues to be the purveyor of the “soft” goal that can break a team’s spirit. He is a good goalie but he isn’t elite.

The Red Wings might get hosed in a trade involving Howard—i.e., they may have to pay a considerable amount of Jimmy’s salary in order for another team to take him off the Red Wings’ hands. The rest of the league’s general managers know that if Detroit’s Kenny Holland shops Howard, Holland will be doing so from a position of weakness.

As for Mrazek, he’s certainly talented and more importantly, he appears to have the mental toughness and makeup that you want from your starting goalie.

But he’s still just 23 and to put all the eggs in his basket is still a risk.

One thing is for sure: the Red Wings didn’t lose their playoff series to Tampa Bay because of goaltending. An uneven offense did them in.

Really, that’s all you can hope for in the playoffs: for your goalie to not lose the series for your team. As I write that, I have brutal flashbacks to Bob Essensa in 1994 and Manny Legace in 2006.

Mrazek didn’t lose the series to the Lightning. Frankly, he played well enough for his team to win, for the most part.

Howard hasn’t really lost any playoff series, either. But he hasn’t stolen any, and Jimmy has had six playoffs in which to do so.

Howard goes to training camp this September as a man who must fight for his no. 1 job, unless he is traded before then.

Mrazek can still afford to head into camp loosey-goosey and with nothing much to lose.

But as we all know, it’s one thing to be the up-and-coming kid and quite another to be the no. 1 guy with the bull’s eye on the back of your oversized sweater.