The goaltender is the most important position in the game of hockey. According to Eddie Olcyzk, if a team has no goaltending, it has, "absolutely no chance" at a Stanley Cup.
The Starting Bid
For a team that had a very rough time finding an identity last season, the Wings really had a rock in goal.
Jimmy Howard was absolutely phenomenal in goal last season. The Wings had a fantastic goaltending tandem because Howie was the tandem. Howard posted a near career best .924 save percentage and tied his personal [full season] NHL goals against average record at 2.13. Howard recorded a 21-13-7 record and the Red Wings made the playoffs on Howard's back.
In fact, he was so fantastic that Kenny Holland locked him up for an additional six years at $31.8 million.
So far, Jimmy Howard is one of five goaltenders in the running for Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, along with Cory Schneider (New Jersey), Ryan Miller (Buffalo), Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles), and Craig Anderson (Melnyk Supreme).
Howard has not had by any means a gigantic sample size in NHL competition, but it can be considered high enough at this point that the Wings should be and will be comfortable with him in net going forward.
The past few years leading up to this season largely saw Howard go through the growing pains typical with any NHL goaltender, though the Red Wings did cook him in the minors for quite some time. In terms of composure and playing style, he is widely compared to his predecessor and mentor, Chris Osgood.
For all of those who criticized his lack of ability to lead a team out of the first round, I think this year does those agonizing cries some justice. Howard, while not perfect, was the most consistently strong thing that the Wings had both in the regular season and the playoffs.
It is very hard to believe that the league's ninth best save percentage is going to fall down in the ranks, especially considering the Red Wings defense has [hopefully] matured a year. Kindl, despite pulling an early April Fool's day surprise on Howard, looks to be heading in the right direction, and it seems as though Jonathan Ericsson is indeed fitting in quite well as the team's second first pairing-defenseman next to Kronwall.
Starting goaltending seems to be a very strong area for the Red Wings. However, the backup position is a bit of a different story.
The Monster Goes "Rawr"
There have been plenty of examples of a team with an injured starter that had a backup step in and play hero. Scott Clemmensen filling in for Martin Brodeur to propel the Devils into the playoffs in 2008-09, Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop standing tall for Ottawa while Craig Anderson healed, and even Brian Elliott/Jake Allen without Jaroslav Halak.
Jonas Gustavsson was dismal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Overseas, Gustavsson was seen as a touted goaltender with untapped potential, backstopping Farjestads BK in the Swedish Elite League to a championship and earning the MVP award for the entire season. He had recorded a .932 save percentage and a stunning 1.96 goals against average in 42 regular season games, and upped the anti to .961 and 1.03 in the playoffs.
Sweden was fairly kind to Gustavsson overall. However, if the team in front of him was very good, he was very good and vice versa. The 2007-08 Farjestads team wasn't by any means terrible, but it was far less superior to the division and championship winning 2008-09 team.
Returning back to North America, Toronto continued its stellar history of good signings and trades involving premium [European] goaltenders and signed Gustavsson. While his first season as a leaf in 2010-11 was not all that terrible (2.87 GAA, .902 SV%), his next season saw a huge decrease in results. His numbers were consistently lower for the next few years and playing on a low possession team like the Maple Leafs didn't do Gustavsson many favors.
Enter Detroit. Gustavsson saw 349 minutes of action in the 2012-13 shortened season with the Wings, starting 5 out of the seven games he played.
Ignoring his one strong game down in Grand Rapids, Gustavsson did not prove his worth behind the weaker defense of the Wings in the games he played. Granted, down the stretch when the Wings were better, Gustavsson did not see the light of day as Howard played out the season. However, in his 7 total games played, the Monster posted a 2.92 GAA with a .879 SV%. There is plenty of room for improvement in the statistics department for Gustavsson.
This is a classic case of "It's easier to criticize than praise," though it can be stressed that there really is a world of difference between the number one and number two spots; the huge difference in salaries should also suffice as proof.
Analysis and Predictions
While it is all but safe to say that the Wings will have to rely less on Howard with the condensed schedule as well as the Olympics (and the fact that he's in the running for a spot on team USA), the Wings are almost stuck. They don't have a great one two punch like the Blues, Maple Leafs (there's a shocker), or Senators have in net. Granted, the same can be said about most teams. However, the fact of the matter is, this is no Jennings worthy tandem. If anything were certain, it's that Howard is going to see around 50-55 starts (barring injuries) and Gustavsson or even some prospects will be there to fill in the blanks. It is best left unsaid as to how those games will go.
The good news is that the Red Wings generally yield less shots against than plenty of squads and despite the fact that the blue line is still a little weak, goaltending is not going to be the be all end all of this Detroit roster.
The question lays in puck possession as well as defense, and the Wings have generally done well in the former category even without Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Helm, etc. Plus, the penalty kill is still very good, but it does not block shots like the Tortorella system does. The Red Wings PK yields quite a few shots, actually, as Jimmy Howard faced 42.9 shots on average (over sixty minutes) when the Wings were short, whereas Gustavsson faced 30.4. Keep in mind, in a shortened season these numbers will be a tad skewed, but it does paint a picture. Penalty kills are like running marathons; they are not easy and it takes quite a bit out of everybody running.
Mike Babcock understands the dynamics of Olympic training and scheduling very well and is probably going to keep that in mind here. It would not be shocking if the Wings actually sat Howard more often than the fans would expect. However, this all depends on what USA Hockey wants to do. Luckily, the Red Wings have quite a few prospects that are more than ready to at least get their feet wet for a few games. One of them, the defending Calder Cup champion, already has. The Wings may or may not reward Mrazek's recent strong play by bringing him up once or twice, again, assuming that there are no injuries to the top two. The trip to the D might be longer than a couple of games. It's up to Ken Holland and company, and these concepts tend to be fickle, especially in odd seasons like Olympic years and lockout years.
Keep in mind, by the time next season rolls around, there will have been two seasons that are virtually outliers in typical hockey statistics, data, player management, and performance. However, it's certainly one more full year of stellar goaltending for the starter and lackluster performance from the not so bona-fide backup.