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Jimmy Howard contract safe call for transitioning Red Wings team

Jimmy Howard is 16-12-4 with a 2.41 GAA and .917 SP this season. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Jimmy Howard is 16-12-4 with a 2.41 GAA and .917 SP this season. (Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

"Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's The Dude." – The Big Lebowski

When you enter into a long-term contract with a goalie, you better be sure you know what you’re getting. All you can ask of your netminder is that he’s consistent and stable, giving your team the same chance between the pipes each year.

Jimmy Howard has done that for the Red Wings in three-plus years as their starter and was rewarded with a six-year, $31.8 million deal. That’s an acceptable $5.3 million cap hit for Detroit.

Howard isn’t a household name, nor has he won any awards or led in any major stat categories in his time. But he hasn’t been a liability. When talking about what the Red Wings need to improve to regain their top contender status, goaltending isn’t – and shouldn’t be – the focal point. It’s defense or wondering when and where the new generation of offensive forwards is coming from.

The 29-year-old Syracuse native has done his part while the Red Wings have started to go through this transition. He was fifth in save percentage in 2009-10, 10th in 2011-12 and is 18th this year. (Howard is ranked lower than goalies like Ben Scrivens and Anton Khudobin with fewer games played, because there’s no minimum number of games to qualify for the category in a shortened season, so he’d likely rank higher in a full season.)

Howard did have a blip in 2010-11 when he ranked 33rd in the league with a .908 SP. But even that season he rebounded in the playoffs, posting a .923 SP and getting to Game 7 of the second round.

Even cream-of-the-crop goalies can have down years. But based on their history, they’ve inspired that a bounce-back campaign is pretty much a sure thing. Ryan Miller’s .906 SP in 2007-08 ranked 29th, Niklas Backstrom’s .903 SP in 2009-10 ranked 38th and Carey Price’s .905 in 2008-09 ranked 31st.

The Red Wings have been a stable franchise for more than two decades now, but they’re entering an unstable period when GM Ken Holland will have some tough decisions to make and another opportunity to prove why he’s been regarded as one of the best in his business.

Defense will be an issue for the Red Wings until they get enough depth or acquire that stud No. 1 they missed out on last summer when Ryan Suter landed in Minnesota. Scoring will increasingly become an issue as Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen age, while Pavel Datsyuk’s contract ends next season, amid speculation he might retire. Valtteri Filppula hasn’t become the scorer he was hoped to be, Damien Brunner’s promising run early this season as so far proven to be nothing more than a streak and no one else, at the moment, looks like a surefire superstar.

So the surest, most battle-tested and, relatively young asset to move forward with is Howard.

The goalie market will be saturated with options this summer. Roberto Luongo, Jonathan Bernier and perhaps Miller could be had via trade, while Backstrom, Mike Smith and Evgeni Nabokov may be free agents. Plus, there’s the Tim Thomas wild card.

But nothing about those options (the price or even the availability) is known. There’s no guarantee any could be had, let alone the one who tops your wish list. In Howard, the Wings have a proven and known commodity that has established himself as a steady hand in a position where a steady hand is of paramount importance.

Howard will make less against the cap than Luongo, Backstrom, Kiprusoff, Miller, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov, Price, Jonathan Quick, Kari Lehtonen and a couple others, so it’s hard to argue he’s overpaid, unless his play takes a sudden and shocking turn for the worst. But at the time the deal was signed, it reflects the market well.

A cap hit of $5 million-plus was the going rate for a UFA-to-be like Howard when looking at rough comparisons. If the Wings thought the price were too high, they could have let Howard walk and tested many other options. But that would have been an unnecessary risk when a perfectly legitimate option was already in the organization. The right choice for the Wings was to keep control of their destiny.

Holland did as Holland does and took the smart, measured approach to this contract. The Wings can move forward the next six years and deal with whatever roster transition issues come up knowing what to expect from their last line of defense.

If Howard’s play blows up so bad we look back on this deal and cringe, we shouldn’t forget it was the right call at the right time.

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Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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