There are few incontrovertible truths in the NHL. Requiring world-class goaltending to win a Stanley Cup is not one of them.
However, it certainly doesn’t hurt. For the past 3 years, Jimmy Howard has manned the Red Wings’ net and done so admirably. He was a Calder Trophy finalist in 2010 and selected to play in his first All-Star Game last year. 2011-12 saw him post a career-best GAA and finish top-10 in both that and save percentage.
Yet, as seems to happen with Red Wing goalies, Howard doesn’t get the recognition from some media and fans he deserves. The same excuses for his "success" are thrown at him as were used for Chris Osgood: the team is so good that any goalie can win; his defense covers up his mistakes; anyone can look good playing behind Nicklas Lidstrom.
These people point to Howard’s second season as what is indicative of his talents. His numbers dipped in all categories, so the belief is that this is where Howard’s value as a goaltender truly lies.
It’s hogwash, and this is going to be the year that Jimmy Howard is going to ascend to the level of elite goaltender in the NHL.
Consider the excuses that normally get lobbed at him. Not only did Howard lose his security blanket in Lidstrom, the team’s next best defensive-defenseman (Brad Stuart) left for San Jose. In their place will step Carlo Colaiacovo and increased roles for Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl and Brendan Smith.
As painful as it is to say, that’s a step down, only because there isn’t a single player in the NHL today that could replace Lidstrom. He was one of those few players who could be put on the ice in any situation and be expected to excel. Howard has lost that, so the pressure will be more on him to help the team in those situations.
If there is an aspect of the Wings that people are pointing to as the potential downfall of the team, it’s the defense. Few teams could overcome the loss of two of their top- four defenseman and succeed, let alone losing one of the single greatest defenseman to ever play the game. Yet that’s exactly what the Wings are attempting to do, and while I believe the defense is better than some people think, there are still question marks with this group.
That means that Howard is going to have to be even better than he was last year when he was arguably the MVP of the first half of the season.
Because no longer can people say that he’s got the league’s best defense corps in front of him. He’s likely going to face more shots and quality chances per game. The Wings’ penalty killing may not get back to the level it was a few years ago. Injuries may happen to a defense group that is already razor-thin.
All of this means that Howard is going to have to be rock-solid in net this year. And yet, I can’t help but have total confidence in him that he’s going to be fine.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking. Maybe it’s remembering how well he played at the beginning of last year before he got hurt, essentially carrying the Wings through the first half of the season. Maybe it’s remembering how he facewashed Sidney Crosby a few years ago after Crosby went after Henrik Zetterberg (ok, maybe that last part doesn’t have a lot of bearing on this season, but it’s a fun memory to relive). Maybe it’s the fact that he’s in a contract year and he’s playing not only for a paycheck but also to show that he is not only the goalie of the Wings’ present, but also its future. Maybe it’s listening to him give interviews and there’s just something there in his voice, the self-confidence necessary to be a great goalie in this league.
Whatever it is, I’m excited to see what he can do this year. In his 3 years in the NHL, he’s had 2 excellent seasons and one mediocre one; I’m no math genius, but common sense tells me that it’s likely the latter that was the fluke, not the former. For the first time in a long time, the Red Wings are going to rely more on a goalie to win them games. I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts that Jimmy Howard is up for the task.