The Red Wings head into another year with a crowded crease, and Jimmy Howard looks to be the starter heading into the season. But don't count out Petr Mrazek, who could steal the starting job with a bounce back year.
The Detroit Red Wings have a few more things to take care of this off-season, including hammering out a new deal for restricted free agent Andreas Athanasiou, finding a way out of a sticky salary cap situation and piecing together a lineup that can improve on last season’s disappointing 25th-place finish.
One of the more interesting decisions the Red Wings face as the off-season winds on, however, is what exactly to do in goal, because a crease that was crowded last summer hasn’t become any less so in the months since Detroit’s campaign came to a close.
The expectation, of course, was that the Red Wings would have this whole thing sorted out by now, especially given that Detroit faced a similar scenario at this point last summer. Over the course of the 2015-16 campaign, Petr Mrazek had taken the crease from Jimmy Howard, gradually sliding into the starting role and laying claim to the team’s top job, even nabbing the final three starts in Detroit’s five-game first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Mrazek’s emergence led to speculation that veteran netminder Howard would be shipped out, making room for his younger counterpart to grow further into the starting role. That scenario seemed all the more likely when Red Wings GM Ken Holland asserted in June 2016 that Mrazek would enter the 2016-17 season as Detroit’s starter. Such a trade never came to pass, though, and for that the Red Wings had to be thankful as Mrazek stumbled out of the gate and never recovered.
Honestly, statistically speaking, Mrazek all but played himself out of the top job this past season. After putting together a stellar campaign in 2015-16, the first season in which he played more than 30 games, Mrazek fell apart in the Red Wings’ crease in 2016-17, posting an 18-21-9 record, .911 SP at 5-on-5, .901 SP at all strengths and a bloated 3.04 GAA. His numbers were among the worst for any netminder with a starter’s workload. Meanwhile, Howard, though only healthy enough to start 24 games, managed a 10-11-1 record, 2.10 goals-against average, .927 save percentage at both 5-on-5 and all strengths. And now, little more than one year after Mrazek was said to be entering camp as the starting netminder, it appears the roles have once again been reversed.
While Holland hasn’t again outright named a starting netminder for the coming campaign, there’s good reason to believe it’s going to be Howard who takes the crease, or at least that the Red Wings are putting their faith in the veteran to start the season. The expansion draft may feel like a distant memory for some, but recall if you will the release of the pre-draft protection lists. One of the biggest surprises was that Detroit opted not to protect Mrazek, instead securing Howard and leaving the Vegas Golden Knights free to pluck away the young puckstopper who was once considered the future of the Red Wings’ crease. Vegas, of course, decided not to take Mrazek, but the very fact he was left exposed by Detroit indicated the Red Wings weren’t happy with the way things had gone this past season.
Further, it appears the Red Wings are at least willing to consider the possibility of Jared Coreau, who came up from the minors to earn 14 starts with the big club over the course of 2016-17, stepping up in such a way that he steals the backup job. In speaking with the Detroit Free Press’ Helene St. James, Red Wings goaltending coach Jeff Salajko said he sees Coreau as a third-string netminder this coming season, but had no problem with the idea of the 25-year-old as a backup, either. “If we can keep Jimmy Howard healthy to play 50-55 games, I was comfortable with Jared in a role like that,” Salajko continued.
But don’t take that to mean Mrazek’s time is up. Salajko told St. James that the hope with Mrazek is that after a trying summer, one that saw him included in the expansion draft and possibly out of the top job, he will hit the ice this season with “something to prove.” And that right there, the way Mrazek bounces back from a bad season, may be the key to the entire situation in Detroit.
Despite the fact he posted the worst SP mark of any netminder to play at least half the campaign and finished with the highest GAA among that same group of netminders, there’s no reason to believe Mrazek can’t recover and produce better numbers, because the past season does seem like more of a blip on the radar than anything. Over the two prior seasons, over which Mrazek suited up in 83 games, he was one of 36 netminders to play 3,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5. Of those goaltenders, only eight, including the likes of Carey Price, Henrik Lundqvist, Corey Crawford and Cory Schneider, posted better SPs than Mrazek’s .931 mark.
Those two campaigns were proof of his ability, proof that he could hold the starting job. That talent didn’t disappear overnight and the hope may be that the past campaign was nothing more than growing pains for a goaltender who is still yet to enter the prime of his career.
So, while there’s really no doubt that Howard is going to get every chance to be the starting netminder when the 2017-18 campaign kicks off, there’s no reason to believe Mrazek can’t creep back into the conversation for the No. 1 job and re-stake his claim as the future of the Red Wings’ crease by season’s end. And maybe, just maybe, if Mrazek does that, Detroit can put an end to their questions in the crease by this time next year.
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