The Red Wings have made it absolutely clear Petr Mrazek is Detroit's #1 goaltender heading into next season. Of course, that somewhat goes without saying. Mrazek proved in 2015-16 he has the ability to be a #1 goaltender in the NHL, potentially even a Vezina contender. Meanwhile, Jimmy Howard hasn't played particularly well the past two or three seasons and seems to be on his way out of town, leaving behind no real competition for the starting job.
But there’s a a bit of a problem. While Mrazek's play up through the first half of February was lights-out, from that point on he was wildly inconsistent and, at times, downright bad. For every good game he had in late February and March he turned in two or three stinkers. That’s not something you want to see out of your starter, especially with a playoff spot on the line. Mrazek's three starts against Tampa in the playoffs inspired some confidence, but this came after he lost the starting job in mid-March and he only retook the position because of Howard's poor play in the series' first two games.
It should be interesting to see how Mrazek continues to develop next year with his status as the starter in Detroit no longer contested. He's no longer the "future starter" who gets a pass for some inconsistencies in his game, he is the starter and will be relied upon heavily as the Wings fight for a playoff spot yet again. Will he thrive under the increased workload and pressure, or will the lack of competition make him complacent? Can he stay consistent or will the wheels come off the wagon for him at some point?
Some Quick Numbers
Through his first four years in the NHL, Mrazek's been a great goalie for the Red Wings. He's played as well as anyone could have asked of him, even if he's lacked consistency at times. When he's in net for the Wings, it's a net gain (no pun intended) and this past year was no different.
Statistics from Hockey-Reference.com
Compare his 5 game rolling average 5v5 Save Percentage this season to that of Braden Holtby (in blue) and Henrik Lundqvist (in green) and it's clear Mrazek's a great goalie who hit a rough patch, probably amplified by injury. Managing to hang with Holtby (the Vezina winner) and Lundqvist (who probably should have won the award) for a better part of the year is no easy task. And by the end of the year, Mrazek seemed to be trending back up to the level of play he was previously at after his slump. Like I said before, he was great in the playoffs against Tampa.
Chart from Corsica.Hockey
This is why I don't think Mrazek's sudden slump is cause for a lot of concern. And don't forget, an 82 game schedule can be quite the grind, especially for a young goaltender that didn't get many nights off. As Mrazek's conditioning improves and he gets used to the workload of a #1 goalie, expect these kinds of catastrophic drops in his play to disappear.
Can He Rise to the Occasion?
One of Mrazek's biggest strengths is that he plays some of his best hockey when the game is on the line. Many young hockey players aren't able to perform at their best when under pressure. They mishandle easy passes, give up a bad goal, whiff on a wide open net, etc. Mrazek seems to be the opposite. When the stakes get high, he's at his best.
The current trend in the NHL is for teams to favor very tall netminders that occupy a lot of the net. These goalies don't usually have the best mobility but their sheer size makes up for that fact. Mrazek goes against that trend and it appears to be working for him so far. He's a bit undersized compared to what a lot of clubs prefer these days, but makes up for it with his competitiveness and athleticism. He can make saves other netminders wouldn't because he plays to these strengths so well. Just look at how he robbed Brian Boyle in the 2015 playoffs.
Like, holy crap. That's something out of Dominik Hasek's playbook. He was way out of position but didn't give up on the play, threw his stick back towards the middle of the net and was rewarded with a highlight reel save.
Something that concerns me about Mrazek is his tendency to overplay shots in certain situations. He plays a somewhat unorthodox style and can get far too aggressive in net. He challenges every shot and I love that about him, but sometimes he over commits and it ends up costing him. Mrazek's decision to heavily commit to his left on the play above is the reason he had to make such a desperate save. Sometimes it works out and he's lauded for his "never say die" attitude and athletic ability. But that's not always the case. There are plenty of times where we've seen him far out of position with the puck in the back of the net. Learning when to control his aggressiveness and not attack every shot is something I think he needs to work on, especially if he's going to be relied upon night in and night out.
Expectations For Next Year
First thing's first, Mrazek's got to sign a contract with the Red Wings, he's a restricted free agent as of this writing. The Wings just filed to take Mrazek to arbitration. That means any contract awarded to him in arbitration will only be one or two years in length, though it's commonplace for the Wings to get deals done before an arbitration hearing takes place. Signing a deal before a hearing also allows the Red Wings to sign Mrazek to a deal longer than 2 years. Frederik Andersen's 5 year, $25M contract might drive Mrazek's asking price up but Andrei Vasilevskiy's 3 year, $10.5M deal will give Ken Holland a cap-friendly comparable to help his cause. Let's hope he's willing to sign for 2-3 years with an AAV somewhere around $4M.
Next season, I expect Mrazek to play somewhere between the lights-out Vezina contender he was for most of this year and the dumpster fire he was in March, preferably closer to the Vezina contender. I think a 2.20 GAA and .920 SV% across 60 games played is pretty fair. I don't expect him to finish first in GSAA/60, a position he held for the majority of the year before slipping to 12th, but I do expect him to finish somewhere in the top 8-10 for the stat. What's important is that he stays healthy and remains steady throughout the year. If his peak isn't as high as it was this year, that's fine. Just as long as his low point isn't nearly as low.