Jimmy Howard Is Back on His Game, but What's the Catch?

Leon Halip

He may be as fiery as we remember him, but his baseline stats are heating up. What does this mean?

If you remember Mike Babcock's keys to success from a little under a month ago, he was extremely adamant about how Jimmy Howard needed to get on a roll if the Wings had any shot of winning games. After a few months of injury, mediocrity, and frustration, Jimmy Howard has finally shown the National Hockey League that he has come to play.

In the last five games, Jimmy Howard is 3-2-0, having given up a mere nine goals on 193 shots. Dissecting that further, Jimmy Howard has a 1.8 GAA and a .953 SV% while the Wings have surrendered an average of 38.6 shots against over the last week and a half while he was in goal.

That's pretty incredible.

The Syracuse, New York native has been very strong since injury, as a matter of fact, and it is not only showing in his game, but also in the fact that it is bleeding into the way the team plays in front of him. Well, maybe not.

Regardless, the fact that Jimmy Howard is playing well is a good sign for the Wings. A younger defensive core is going to make mistakes, and a heavily injury-battered team (which at times has been icing a lineup equivalent to a team that is below the cap floor) is not going to score many goals. As a matter of fact, not including the "shootout tally," the Red Wings have averaged 2.2 goals over their last five.

Perhaps the most memorable thing that happened to Jimmy in the last week and a half, however, came last night against the Los Angeles Kings.

Long story short, Jimmy took one too many hits and got a bit tired of getting run into by the royal flush of Kings in the crease.

Fired up? Check. Good short term performance? Check. Will he continue to play the way he has been playing? Yes, but it's not necessarily the answer you're going to want to hear.

For starters, goalies are wildly unpredictable.

Goalies are a strange bunch when it comes to their performance and they're always highly unpredictable no matter how established they are, no matter how much talent they have, and no matter what they've previously done in their career. It's not uncommon for players with no history of success to blossom in their late 20s or early 30s with All-Star level performances, while supposed franchise goalies can completely fall off the map.

-Adam Gretz

We saw this in goaltenders like Tim Thomas, Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson, and even Cory Schneider. Some may say that we're watching Ben Bishop join this category as we speak, but the jury is still up on that one. (Ignore that all of these goaltenders happen to be American.)

Jimmy Howard always had promise, and as a graduate of the USNTDP, has always come with some sort of guaranteed success at the professional level. It took several retirements and trades before Jimmy Howard was fully promoted to starter at the age of 24, and he has had pretty solid numbers in three of his four seasons as the Red Wings' number one.

As the Red Wings continue to surrender more and more shots per game, one wonders whether or not the save percentage that Jimmy has been posting is sustainable. The obvious answer is no, but what we can expect for the rest of the season is the same thing that Jimmy has done throughout his short career: give his team a good chance to win every night.

It's the cliched yet go-to answer for every single general manager and television analyst who talks about a goaltender's contract.

Capture_medium

The above chart shows Jimmy Howard's career save percentage. As we can see, it's pretty clear that Howard is streaky, like most goaltenders. Streaky goalies still win games and put up high numbers; with the Wings in flux right now, fans want to hear the magical answer that Jimmy's hot streak has started and it won't let up. Historically, even with a few hiccups, Jimmy heats up usually around the end of the season towards the latter part of his starts, so he is heating up early this year. A win in January comes out to the same point value as a win in April. The Red Wings have to win, though, and winning comes in the form of scoring goals.

Here is the ugly news: the goalie cannot score goals, nor can he skate the puck up the ice.

The Red Wings have always been the team that was the crown jewel of advanced statisticians in the way they both moved the puck and held onto it, creating scoring chance after scoring chance. The fact is, the Red Wings have had garbage possession numbers largely based on the fact that too many key players are missing. The Red Wings won't solve anything until they find a way to get healthy, and that's a given.

What is frightening, however, is how low these numbers have been over the last few weeks.

In terms of the eyeball test, Jimmy Howard is facing quality changes against him and he's performing well in sometimes dire situations. The situation in Detroit is horrid, with the Wings amassing absolutely awful possession numbers relative to what we are used to seeing.

Detroit_red_wings_2013-2014_game-by-game_5v5_close_ff__medium

For those new in town to advanced statistics, feel free to check out ExtraSkater. For the purpose of not confusing the hell out of people who don't care, we're going to take a brief look at what this chart means. The line in the middle represents 50%, the de facto possession standard.

Starting from the 28 of December, two days before Howard's return from injury, the Red Wings have been a highly below average team, as shown in the graph. Specifically at 5v5 Fenwick-close, the Wings have had a 45.8%, 54.9%, 41.3%, 35.8%, 42.7%, and a 55.9% with Jimmy in net over his last seven. In terms of Corsi-for, which brings shot attempts into play, the Red wings have been their worst all season since Jimmy has been back from injury.

When a team is not carrying the puck, it is losing puck battles and giving possession to the other team. The Wings are getting beaten at their own game, simply because they are not healthy enough. When the other team is controlling the puck as much as we have seen over the last few games, the results tend to be ugly. Shots for are a dependent variable on possession. If you don't have the puck, you don't take shots and therefore can't score. This can be seen in Toronto's latest fall to reality, though things seem to have taken a brief turn for the better in Ontario. Even then, however, we saw James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier become human again, and when their save percentages dropped, so did the team's record. A team that gives up 35+ shots a night cannot consistently win hockey games with purpose.

Without Jimmy at his best right now, the Wings would not have so much as a single win. Detroit is totaling bad possession numbers and terrible shot totals, leading to a barrage of high quality chances for the opponent. The fact that Jimmy's room for error is slim to none makes his recent numbers all the more astounding and important.

In short, Jimmy has been absolutely brilliant in terms of how he is keeping the Wings in games, and near-literally he is standing on his head. The only problem with Jimmy Howard is the team that is presently playing in front of him.

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