Posted on: December 15, 2011 4:18 pm
Edited on: December 15, 2011 7:05 pm
By: Adam Gretz
PITTSBURGH -- By now you're probably already aware that Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard was left off the NHL's All-Star ballot, news that was controversial at the time it was announced, and you've probably already displayed the proper amount of fist-shaking at what has been an obvious snub that looks dumber by the day.
Entering Thursday's game in Nashville, Detroit's third-year starter is near the top of the NHL leaderboard for just about every goaltending category, leading the NHL in wins, while also occupying the top-10 in goals against average, save percentage, even strength save percentage and shutouts. It's been a great season for him. An All-Star season. And even though he's not on the ballot, fans in Detroit have pushed his write-in campaign, and for good reason.
Red Wings goalies, however, tend to be a different animal, and it's always difficult to figure out how much of the success is a result of the skill and ability of the goaltender, and how much of it is the goalie simply being a cog in a well oiled machine. And the discussion is usually intense. I think part of that comes from the fact the team invests so little cap space in the position, instead using its financial resources to build up the forwards and defense. During the 2008 Stanley Cup finals, when the Red Wings topped the Penguins in six games, general manager Ken Holland addressed that at the time by saying, "My feeling is if you can get one of the five or six best goalies in the league you can spend the money. We can't get into those guys, and the difference between the eighth goalie in the league and the 15th goalie, it's a big difference in money. It's not a big difference in performance."
This season the duo of Howard and Ty Conklin takes up only $3 million in cap space -- which is less than 19 individual goalies across the league, most of whom have played at a level below Detroit's pairing, and Howard in particular.
The Red Wings have been a team that smothers their opponent defensively and controls the puck in the offensive zone better -- and longer -- than just about every other team in the league. And that can obviously be very beneficial for a goaltender. The fewer shots and chances he has to face, the less chance their is for a goal, and the easier life is for him.
For years debates raged on about Chris Osgood's importance to Detroit's success, even as they went to Stanley Cup Finals and, ultimately, won them. Among Red Wings fans, he was viewed as a vital part of the team's ability to win and a sure-fire Hall of Famer. Outside of Detroit he was (and pretty much still is) generally viewed as just another goalie playing behind a team loaded with All-Stars, whose Hall of Fame credentials are up for serious debate.
Now that Howard is having the best season of his brief career, and so far one of the best ones in the NHL, he's not getting much attention outside of Detroit, either.
Through their first 29 games the Red Wings have allowed the fifth fewest goals per game in the NHL, while also giving up the second fewest shots in the NHL at 27.4, trailing only the Ken Hitchcock-led St. Louis Blues.
"It's a huge priority for us," said Wings coach Mike Babcock of his team's defensive play on Tuesday night after its 4-1 win in Pittsburgh. "You can't outscore everybody and you have to be able to play well without the puck."
Their defensive play was an obvious point of emphasis (if not concern) coming into this season for two main reasons: 1) The team lost one of its long-time standouts on the blue line, Brian Rafalski, to retirement over the summer, and 2) The team's defensive play saw a noticeable decline last season compared to where it was in recent years, putting additional pressure on the offensive to, well … outscore everybody.
Especially when Howard saw his number regress from where they were during his rookie season when he was a finalist in the Rookie Of The Year voting. The 2010-11 team allowed an average of over 30 shots per game, something that a Red Wings team hadn't done in more than a decade, and the result was the eighth most goals against in the league.
And now this year? Once again one of the best teams in the league defensively. In games that Howard has started the Wings have allowed more than three goals just two times. They've allowed more than two just five times. Part of that success has been due to the fact team is once again keeping teams locked up in their own end of the ice, but there is also no denying that Howard has played at a higher level this season and taken advantage of the lesser workload on a nightly basis.
Following Tuesday's game I asked him about it being another night where he only had to face around 25 shots, as has been the case much of the season, and he quickly laughed and said, "Well, it was 26 we allowed, but who's really counting?"
The only personnel changes on the blue line have been Jakub Kindl and Mike Commodore replacing Ruslan Salei, and Ian White coming in for Rafalski. Was that really enough to swing the Red Wings defense from the bottom third of the NHL to the top-third?
The system helps, as does Detroit's impressive roster, but Howard has been great, too.
"We just do a great job," Howard added. "For the most part you only have to worry about the one shot, and I just try to put the rebound into good areas, whether it's holding on to it or putting it in the corner."
The Wings' defensive play was one of the main topics of discussion in their locker room on Tuesday night, and forward Dan Cleary was quick to give a lot of the credit to his team's often times overlooked goalie.
"We pride ourselves on being good defensively," said Cleary. "That's how we won a championship here, being good defensively, and we all believe that's how you win in the end. And the other side of it is, i think, Howie has had a specatular season, and anytime your goalie is your best player, goals against are going to be good."