Published March 2, 2020
This is not how a typical longtime Red Wing career has ended.
The star players who carried the team during the salad days of Hockeytown—i.e. from 1997-2008—have pretty much gone out on top when Father Time caught up to them. They didn’t turn into cautionary tales of players who hung around too long.
Only a bad back knocked Henrik Zetterberg, 38 years old, out of the game. When Z was forced to retire in 2018, it wasn’t because of lack of production. Pavel Datsyuk went home to Russia in 2016 (also at age 38)—not because he was out of place on an NHL roster, but because that’s where his heart lie.
Nicklas Lidstrom might still be playing in the NHL today, even at age 49, if he so desired. Lidstrom was hardly the picture of dilapidation when he hung up his skates in 2012 at 42 years young.
Even Stevie Yzerman, when he retired back in 2006 at age 41, was probably not truly finished, should he have chosen to continue playing.
What’s happening now to Jimmy Howard is sad, really.
Jimmy is going to turn 36 later this month and he’s having not only the worst season (by far) of his 15-year NHL career, he’s having an historically bad year—league-wide.
He will likely retire after this season. It will be a mercy kill.
Howard is 2-23-2 (he hasn’t won since before Halloween) with a grisly 4.20 GAA and unsightly save percentage of .882.
Old Red Wings haven’t died in recent years—they’ve just faded away. But Howard is limping across the finish line, his struggles front and center. No dignity. Going out with a whimper, Jimmy is.
In January of last year, I opined that Howard’s Red Wings career would come to an end after the 2018-19 season, if not before. I wrote that is legacy wearing the winged wheel would be complicated to describe, given how the trajectory of his career overlapped between the Cup-contending days and the team’s transition into have-nots.
But in March 2019, the Red Wings re-upped Howard for one season, at $3.4 million. It was yet another example of one of the teams in town not paying me any mind.
Unfortunately, the way this is ending for Howard isn’t all that complicated at all.
He’s looked every bit of his 35 years this season. Yes, his team is lousy but that hasn’t kept the Red Wings’ other goalie, Jonathan Bernier, from playing reasonably well.
Howard’s legacy will now be one of a player who hung around one year too long.
The Red Wings have precious little goaltending depth in their organ-eye-ZAY-shun. That lack of depth contributed greatly to then-GM Kenny Holland’s decision to hitch his train to Howard for another season.
Say what you will about Holland, but it’s unfair to pin this on him. No one saw Howard turning into a human sieve so suddenly. The beatdowns have robbed him of confidence and if you think that’s not as important to guys in their mid-30s, you’re mistaken.
Howard isn’t just fighting the puck, he’s being bulldozed by it. On too many nights he’s played as if there’s a soccer goal behind him. On the nights he’s starting, it’s maybe even money on whether he’ll survive for all 60 minutes. Coach Jeff Blashill has pulled Howard as much as a baseball manager changes pitchers.
It hasn’t been pretty.
You know it’s bad when it’s beyond the booing stage, which it is now at Little Caesars Arena. The barrage of goals that Howard allows are now met with indifference. Maybe even a sense of compassion.
Have the Red Wings played poorly in front of Howard? Is the Pope Catholic?
Yet this is more than just a goalie being victimized by his teammates’ malfeasance. Howard, as the Red Wings’ last line of defense, has been cringeworthy in his performance.
This isn’t how longtime Red Wings finish. It hasn’t been, in recent years.
Blashill talked about his goalie after Howard was pulled yet again in a 7-1 thumping at the hands of the Minnesota Wild on Friday night. Howard surrendered five goals on 17 shots.
“I’d like to go and give him an effort where we don’t give up many chances and try to get his game back going,” Blashill said. “I think that there’s a responsibility of the team to do that. We didn’t start the game to help him.”
Howard’s teammates, just like the coach, have done their best to cover for him verbally after the games. He’s had too long of a career with the Red Wings for them to do anything else. To their credit, the players point the fingers at themselves first—often, exclusively.
But Howard is too often the elephant in the dressing room. His teammates have failed him, but also vice versa. Howard is 2-23-2 and winless since Oct. 29 for a reason, and it’s not only explained by poor defensive zone play.
What we’re seeing is the coming apart at the seams of a once-All-Star caliber goalie. And it hasn’t been pretty.
A month and a half ago, Howard tried to put on a brave face.
“I know I can do it,” Howard said. “Sooner or later the hard work is going to pay off, I believe. I can’t over-analyze things. Quit thinking out there and use my hockey instincts. You just have to believe that sooner or later you’re going to come out of it. You keep playing. You hope that the bounces start going your way.”
That was in mid-January, and nothing has changed since. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.
This isn’t how old Red Wings finish. It hasn’t been.
For Howard, the season can’t end soon enough. What a way to end a career.