Approaching 35, Howard soon to leave a puzzling Red Wings legacy behind

Published Jan. 19, 2019

As bad as the Red Wings have been this season, imagine them without Jimmy Howard.

Soon, you may not have to imagine such a thing.

Howard, the Red Wings goalie who, approaching age 35, is officially a graybeard, might be on the trading block, if you read the Internet wires.

He’s in the final year of his contract, and with an extension unlikely at this point, Howard is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

I don’t mean to write an obituary of Howard’s Red Wings career prematurely, but with his 35th birthday coming up in late-March, and with the Red Wings going nowhere once again, it’s time for reflection.

Howard, like so many Red Wings goalies before him, has been the recipient of a love/hate relationship by the hockey denizens in Detroit.

But unlike the targets of fan vitriol who have preceded him, Howard is an easier one because of one simple fact: he never won anything as a Red Wing.

It may be harsh to frame it that way, but how else would you?

Image result for jimmy howard red wings loss

Goalies in Detroit: fans love to hate ’em

Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon and even the great Dominik Hasek were Red Wings netminders of the past who were given the business at Joe Louis Arena. Sometimes relentlessly, often ridiculously.

But all of them won Stanley Cups.

On June 7, 1997, the night the Red Wings ended their 42-year, Cup-less drought, a fan at JLA had brought a mea culpa for the sometimes-maligned Vernon. The fan held it up proudly as the team celebrated on the ice.

I’M SORRY, the banner said.

Vernon was asked about the public apology during an on-ice television interview after the Cup-clinching game.

“Apology accepted,” Vernon said with a chuckle.

But Howard?

No Cups. Not even close, really. Unlike so many of the men who’ve guarded the net in Detroit over the past quarter century, Howard and playoff success have been like oil and water. Despite postseason goals against and save percentage numbers that are aligned with his regular season performance, Howard is 21-26 in the playoffs. He has never truly led the Red Wings into a deep spring run.

And before this season ends, Howard may be an ex-Red Wing, his legacy in Detroit enigmatic.

He is, ironically, the Red Wings’ lone All-Star this year. And he’s been an All-Star in the past as well (2015).

An enigma as a Red Wing

Jimmy Howard, as a Red Wing (since 2005-06), has been good at times, sometimes exemplary, but too often in the middle of the pack. Even in his All-Star years, you didn’t look at Howard and see consistent greatness.

And, he’s been injured a lot.

More irony: despite his past and with his current tenuous state, Howard has been one of the Red Wings’ best players on many a night this season. He’s cooled off recently, but if it wasn’t for Howard’s play in October and November, the Red Wings might be sporting the league’s worst record now.

You’re excused if you still look at Jimmy Howard and see that fuzzy-faced, young goalie, despite what his birth certificate says. He’s a sneaky 35, and I don’t mean his sweater number.

He might not look 35, and you might not think of him as an elder statesman, but Howard waxed like one after he was named to the All-Star team earlier this month.

“I kind of think (Dylan Larkin) deserves to be (on the All-Star team) probably even more, but it’ll be fun,” Howard said. “I’m looking forward to it for my boys. They’re at that age now where they’re starting to learn players around the league. They were really excited when they found out.”

“My boys”? “They’re at that age now”?

Spoken like a grizzled veteran, which Howard is.

The end in Detroit seems near

For now, Red Wings GM Kenny Holland has been mum on Howard’s future in Detroit. With it looking like the Red Wings will be (again) on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoffs this spring, it may not make sense to lock up a 35-year-old goalie to another multi-year contract.

But does Howard have the chops to be attractive to a playoff contender, as a rent-a-goalie? If a team is looking for a veteran to serve as backup insurance, Howard might be a viable option, but with his contract expiring, the Red Wings will be lucky to get a bucket of pucks for him in a trade.

Or, the Red Wings could just hang on to Howard and let his contract expire quietly after the season.

It’s time to reflect a little on Jimmy Howard’s career as a Red Wing. He clearly won’t join Vernon, Osgood and Hasek as Cup-winning goalies in Detroit. That’s not an indictment; that’s a fact.

Playoff success and Howard didn’t go hand-in-hand. His timing was such that when he took over as the starting goalie, the Red Wings were in decline.

Part of that isn’t his fault, but yet he didn’t do anything spectacular to help the cause, either.

It’s been an enigmatic career. And soon, one way or another, it looks to be nearing its end–in Detroit.

It’s OK to be feeling torn now.

Fedorov, Lidstrom Add Two More HOF Members to Amazing 2002 Team

Elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs can be particularly cruel in its suddenness and finality.

The Red Wings of 2000-01 led the Los Angeles Kings, 2-0, in the first round, best-of-seven go-round. The Kings finished 19 points behind the Red Wings in the conference standings, winning 11 fewer games than Detroit (49-38).

After Games 1 and 2, it looked like the Kings would be on the golf course in a matter of days.

But in Los Angeles, things changed. The Kings won Game 3, then handed the Red Wings an especially galling defeat in Game 4, coming from behind with a three-goal third period and then winning the game in overtime.

Back in Detroit, suddenly embroiled in a series, the Red Wings were flat in Game 5 and lost, 3-2.

Then came that suddenness and finality of elimination.

It happened in Los Angeles, on April 23, 2001.

The Red Wings lost Game 6 in overtime, and just like that, their promising season was over with.

After spotting the Red Wings a 2-0 series lead, the Kings swept them in four straight.

When a Cup favorite gets dismissed in the first round of the playoffs, there is no shortage of blame to go around.

Was it the goaltending? Chris Osgood wasn’t brilliant.

Was it the offense? The Red Wings scored nine goals combined in Games 1 and 2, then could only muster eight over the next four contests.

Was it the defense? The Red Wings didn’t give Osgood a lot of help in several of LA’s goals.

Regardless, to not even make it into May grated on the Red Wings and especially owner Mike Ilitch in the summer of 2001.

Several of the Red Wings’ star players weren’t getting any younger. If the team was going to win another Stanley Cup, reinforcements would be needed.

So Ilitch broke out his checkbook and pumped some of his pizza dough into his hockey team.

It started in May with the signing, for depth, of veteran defenseman Fredrik Olausson, the Swede who’d been out of the NHL for a season, spending the 2000-01 campaign playing in his home country.

It continued—and the stakes got higher—with the trade for All-World goalie Dominik Hasek on July 1. After the trade, Osgood was exposed in the waiver draft and was claimed by the New York Islanders, of all teams.

Late in the summer, Ilitch green-lighted huge contracts to snipers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, who weren’t spring chickens themselves.

Defense was addressed. Goaltending was addressed. Offense was addressed. And the Red Wings suddenly had an embarrassment of riches. Their roster read like a Who’s Who of NHL power brokers.

It was all done for one reason, of course: to win the Stanley Cup. Right now. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

Everyone that GM Ken Holland added with his boss’ blessing in the 2001 off-season was old. But they were still damn fine hockey players.

Fine enough to indeed win the Cup the following June, after a scary first round against Vancouver.

With the announcement on Monday that Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom had been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, that brought to nine the number of players from the 2001-02 Red Wings who are now Hall of Famers.

Nine players is almost half of a nightly lineup of 18 skaters and two goalies.

The team was coached by a HOFer as well—Scotty Bowman.

Bowman had been down this path before, in Montreal.

With the Canadiens, Scotty coached the likes of Guy LaFleur, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey et al. The goalie was Ken Dryden. That team won four straight Cups (1976-79). So Bowman knew what to do when the roster was filled to the gills with elite talent.

It’s tempting to wonder whether the 2002 Red Wings should go down as one of the best teams of all-time.

Two things work against that notion, however.

One, pretty much the same team (minus Hasek, who retired but who was replaced by Curtis Joseph, who was no slouch; and Bowman, who retired) was ousted in the first round of the 2003 playoffs, in four straight games to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (coached by Mike Babcock).

Two, because of age and retirement, the core of that 2002 squad didn’t last together for very long.

But it’s fair to suggest that, when considering single seasons only, the 2001-02 Red Wings rival some of the greatest teams in league history, if only due to star power.

Put them up against the Canadiens of the 1950s/1970s, the Islanders of the early-1980s and the Oilers of the late-1980s. Put them up against those powerful Red Wings teams of the 1950s as well.

The 2002 team holds up just fine, when compared in terms of doing, for one season, what those teams did in multiple ones. Certainly in terms of Hall of Fame talent.

But because of the mercurial nature of the 2002 Red Wings, never can they be considered one of the greatest teams of all-time when discussing sustainability.

The base core was built via the draft, but when push came to shove, Ilitch used the hammer of his deep pockets and free agency to finish the job.

Without Hasek, Hull and Robitaille, the 2002 Red Wings probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup, though it was a possibility. The addition of those three Hall of Famers put the team over the hump.

There’s a lot of chatter today about whether Fedorov deserves to have his no. 91 hanging from the rafters—if not at Joe Louis Arena, then in the new facility that’s being built.

That’s a fair question. Maybe even a good one.

But Yzerman and Fedorov and Lidstrom and Chelios and Shanahan needed some help. The 2001 early exit from the playoffs illustrated that.

Hasek, Hull and Robitaille provided that help, and then some.

This doesn’t take away from Sergei and Nick’s special day, of course.

What it means to do is remind Red Wings fans that they were alive to see, for one brilliant season, a hockey machine and a collection of talent that may not be seen again, thanks to the salary cap.

Howard Will Be Playoff Starter, But For How Long?

The 43-year-old goalie, destined someday for Hall of Fame enshrinement, was losing his mojo at the worst possible time.

It was the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008. The Red Wings had carried a 2-0 series lead into Nashville and advancement into the conference semi-finals seemed assured.

But then Dominik Hasek imploded.

Hasek gave up two relatively soft goals in the third period of Game 3, nine seconds apart, turning a 3-2 Red Wings lead into a 4-3 deficit, just like that.

In Game 4, Hasek was again shaky, letting in two goals within 32 seconds in the first period, then when the Red Wings scored in the second period to make the score 2-1, Hasek let another puck slip by him just eleven seconds later. The Predators won and tied the series, 2-2.

The Red Wings left Nashville, surrendering their series lead and with the Predators brimming with confidence.

Confidence is what Hasek, despite his age and wealth of experience, lacked.

The Red Wings were suddenly in a tricky first-round series against an inferior opponent. It wasn’t the first time.

Six years earlier, the Vancouver Canucks stormed into Detroit and won the first two games of that first round series. Hasek was in goal for that one, too, and he didn’t play well.

Coach Scotty Bowman stuck with Hasek in that series, and the star-studded Red Wings rallied to win four straight over the Canucks. Six weeks later, the Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions—and Hasek was among the brightest of stars.

But Hasek was 37 in 2002 and he was 43 in 2008, with his confidence waning.

Coach Mike Babcock openly complained about the pucks going into the Detroit net as the Red Wings prepared for Game 5 of the Nashville series.

So Babcock, not one to bow to sentiment or to misplaced loyalty, made a change in net for Game 5.

Babcock summoned Chris Osgood, a two-time Cup winner, and inserted Ozzie between the pipes.

The change was not taken lightly. Switching goalies in the middle of a playoff series, especially with a team that had high hopes like the Red Wings in 2008, carried great risk.

Osgood was brilliant as the Red Wings won Game 5 in overtime. And Osgood was good the rest of the way, as Hasek never started another playoff game. The Red Wings won another Cup—10 years after Ozzie led the Wings to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

It says here that Babcock’s decision to replace a future Hall of Fame goalie, in the middle of a first round playoff series, is among the most courageous coaching moves in Detroit sports history.

It also says here that Red Wings fans shouldn’t be surprised if Babcock pulls another 2008-like move this spring.

The playoffs are nigh. And the crooked eye is being turned on goalie Jimmy Howard. Again.

Howard suffered through an uneven (being kind) season last year. Some might say he was downright awful at times.

But the soon-to-be 31 year-old (March 26) Howard started this season as if on a mission, and he was rightly lauded for bouncing back strong.

That was then.

Lately, Howard is making fans nervous. He’s not as sharp as he was earlier in the season.

Adding to the angst is the thought that young backup Petr Mrazek, who’s played well in his 21 games with the Red Wings, might be the one who ought to start in the playoffs.

That notion is far-fetched, but the motivation behind it is understandable.

Howard, frankly, deserves to start in Game 1 of the playoffs. He’s earned that right. The Red Wings aren’t paying him millions to take a seat in favor of a rookie, for gosh sakes.

But don’t be taken aback if Babcock shows little patience with Howard and does a switcheroo. In the middle of a series.

It might not even be so much an anti-Howard move as a pro-Mrazek one.

Babcock loves Mrazek’s swagger. He loves it that the 23-year-old Czech firmly believes that he will be a star in the NHL. And the coach has liked what he’s seen from Mrazek in spot duty.

It may not be this spring, but sometime in the near future, Petr Mrazek will be the Red Wings’ no. 1 goaltender. That seems to be the track on which the Red Wings have the Czech.

Mrazek might not play a minute in the playoffs this spring. That wouldn’t be the worse thing in the world, because it would mean that Jimmy Howard is doing OK.

But Howard, once again, has to earn trust—of the fans and, more importantly, of the coach.

Or else Babcock might summon his inner 2008.

Don’t be surprised.