“It’s hard for [Jimmy] Howard. Obviously the other guy’s got talent and he’s young. It seems that pressure doesn’t bother him…. Sometimes the guy who thinks he’s No. 1 and may be the better goalie must take a step back. This kid is good. Real good.” — Curtis Joseph
The general manager of the Detroit Red Wings chuckled, perhaps nervously, when he was asked to picture the reams of stats-filled paper agent Pat Morris will plop on his desk this off-season: the case for Petr Mrazek‘s monster raise.
“Certainly,” Ken Holland told Hockey Central at Noon Thursday, “Mrazek has become the No. 1 guy here. Whenever we need Howie, he’s going to go in and do a good job for us.”
The nagging question: At his annual cost of $5.3 million, do the Wings need Howie for next season, let alone the two after that?
“Jimmy Howard… I wouldn’t use the word accepted, but understood that we got a good young goaltender and it’s a competition. The last 25 games, Mrazek has sort of won the competition,” Holland said.
“I like our goaltending. It’s a great one-two punch. Mrazek’s a great young goaltender.”
Great and cheap.
Throw out the young stars on entry-level contracts, and Mrazek, 24, is arguably the NHL’s best bargain. For just $737,500, the Red Wings have a goaltender who ranks in the top six in goals-against average (2.20), save percentage (.924) and shutouts (four).
By every measure, Mrazek — a fifth-round pick — has outplayed his counterpart since graduating from the Grand Rapids Griffins, stealing the crease before heading into the 2015 playoffs. Howard was on Team USA’s 2014 Olympic roster; he’ll watch Mrazek dress for Team Czech at the 2016 World Cup.
Surely, Holland wants Mrazek to be Detroit’s goaltender of the future, not just the present, but he’ll have to pay. Would Mrazek take less money than his backup?
Even if Mrazek — a pending restricted free agent — signs for, say, $5.2 million, Detroit will leapfrog Dallas and become the owner of the NHL’s most expensive goalie tandem.
Holland asserted before February’s deadline that he was not trying to make a trade in net. That could change at the draft.
The Red Wings aren’t currently retaining salary on a traded player but may need to employ that option if they wish to move Howard this spring. Alternatively, they could save cap space by buying out the 31-year-old (here’s how that would work finanacially) and go hunting for a more affordable Number 2.
Holland defended Howard’s loss to the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets this week, instead blaming the Wings’ lack of discipline, which resulted in a pair of 5-on-3 goals.
The GM said that, after being the sure No. 1 for years, Howard has struggled to find out how to play at his peak when he was only seeing one start every 10 days.
Before his defeat to the Jackets, Howard had put together four straight outings in which he surrendered no more than two goals — something he hadn’t done since February 2015.
“I think he’s figured it out in the last four or five outings,” Holland said.
Still, coach Jeff Blashill went back to Mrazek Thursday, and Detroit (34-23-11) gathered a valuable two points against the Winnipeg Jets.
Gunning for a 25th-consecutive post-season appearance, the Red Wings’ grasp on an Eastern Conference final wild-card spot is tenuous.
The hard-charging Flyers, winners of five of their last six, sit just four points back, and Philadelphia has two games in hand.
“There’s  games to go. These are playoff games,” Holland said. “You’re not going to back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’re going to have to play our way in.”
And that means depending on their best — and least-expensive — goaltender.