Before the 2014-15 season began, many of us believed that if the Red Wings were going to be among the NHL's contenders, Jimmy Howard was going to have to rebound from a subpar 2013-14 season and become the goaltender he had been throughout his career.
As this season progressed, Howard's numbers were more in line with his career averages: a 16-7-7 record bolstered by a .920 SV% and 2.11 GAA. More importantly, for a team that struggled to score early in the season, he kept the Wings in games, allowing them to bank points while the lineup was tweaked and changed to generate more offense.
Early in a game against the Capitals on January 10th, Howard attempted to make a save and failed miserably, and was taken off on a stretcher. It was confirmed he had a groin tear and was going to miss 2-4 weeks. Jonas Gustavsson was already out with an injury, so it was Petr Mrazek to the rescue.
For those that weren't around at the beginning of the season, it was thought that Mrazek should not only be the full-time backup to Howard, he should challenge for the starter's job. Coming into the season, Mrazek only had 11 games of experience, but he had looked sharp when called upon. For the first time, he was going to get an extended look while Howard and Gustavsson recovered.
Fast forward a few weeks, and it was announced that Howard is recovered enough to re-join the team in Pittsburgh, but Mrazek will get the start Wednesday, with Howie acting as the backup. While no one has actually said the words "goaltending controversy", stories are starting to be written about what to do with Mrazek once Howard is ready to assume full-time duties and Gustavsson healthy.
While there is no actual controversy, it's still a shock to see Mrazek get the start against the Penguins knowing that Howard and Gustavsson are both healthy enough to be in the lineup, if not play. A couple of years ago it would have been unheard of for a young player like Mrazek to get ice time when veterans were available. And while Mrazek's win-loss record is impressive while he took over for Howard (8-1-0 with a no-decision not including the Capitals game where he came on in relief after Howard got hurt), his overall numbers aren't earth-shattering: .911 SV% and 2.51 GAA in 11 games, where he averaged just over 25 shots against per game. While he's only allowed 1 goal in his previous 2 games, his consistency has been an issue, something that is not unexpected given that this is his first true stretch as the full-time starter. His overall numbers haven't been terrible, but they're not what you would expect from a goalie that you may count on to lead you to a Cup.
However, the name of the game is winning, and as Mike Babcock said, "Pete, if I'm not mistaken, is winning,", so Mrazek is the guy for at least another game while Howard backs him up and Gustavsson enjoys the food in the Leino Lounge. No one seems to be upset about this, especially those of us who want Mrazek to be in the NHL for as long as possible.
The million dollar question is what to do with Mrazek now that Howard and Gustavsson are healthy. Many people seem to believe that sending Mrazek down to Grand Rapids so that he can continue to play as much as possible and potentially go on a long playoff run with the Griffins is the best course of action. However, having 2 good goalies and 1 that can fill in if needed on the roster isn't a bad thing.
The thing that should be of concern is the fact that Howard is coming off yet another groin injury. After the injury parade last year, protecting the players' health should be of the utmost importance. This is especially true when talking about arguably the team's most important player who just so happens to play the most important position.
After Wednesday, the Wings will have 29 games left in the regular season. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, the Wings will make the playoffs yet again, meaning the best players need to be ready for a very tough first round matchup regardless of who they play. It makes no sense to have Howard play 20 or more of those final 29 games, even if it means he's getting back in shape for the postseason, because the risk of re-injury is too great. It would be better for him to play 17-18 of those games, and allow the backup to play the other 11-12 so that Jimmy can stay healthy and the backup can continue to get playing time.
That's why the best decision here is to, as long as possible, keep Mrazek on the NHL team. If roster limits no longer allow the team to carry 3 goalies, then either move Gustavsson to a team that needs goaltending *cough*FLYERS*cough* or send him down to Grand Rapids and let him play there. Mrazek has more than earned a spot on the NHL team, and the situation is such that he should be able to continue to play enough so that if he is called upon to once again carry the team, he will be ready. Further, the drop from Gustavsson to Mrazek is not only very slight, it doesn't exist. Right now a very strong argument could be made that Mrazek is a better goaltender than Gustavsson.
Mike Babcock's mantra this season has been that the best players will play. If that remains the standard, then Petr Mrazek should be a Red Wing until this season is over.