Jimmy Howard never lost confidence in his game the last few seasons.
Even though his numbers worsened and other players jumped him on the Detroit Red Wings goaltending depth chart, Howard still believed he could stop the puck at a high level. After last season where he had a 2.80 goal-against average and .906 save percentage in 37 games, he knew at the age of 32 he still had a lot of good hockey left, but just needed to find a way to get himself back in order on the ice.
During the offseason, Howard was asked to train himself to be more patient in net. Instead of coming out to challenge the play, coach Jeff Blashill asked Howard to let the game come to him. The results have been obvious so far.
In four games played, Howard has a 0.86 goal-against average and .973 save percentage. He is 2-1-0 for the Red Wings and has outplayed starter Petr Mrazek, who has struggled of late in allowed eight goals in his last two games played.
“I find myself liking the way I’m playing right now and just basically just the game’s a lot easier,” Howard said in a phone interview with Puck Daddy. “It’s slowing down a lot when you’re not as aggressive.”
It’s a long season and Howard almost certainly won’t keep up his current numbers. He may also not finish the year with Detroit thanks in part to his age and his near $5,291,667 salary cap hit. But he’s at least proven in the early going that a bounce back year out of him is certainly possible.
We talked to Howard about his game, trade rumors in the offseason, and his recent mask honoring former Red Wings broadcaster Dave Strader.
Q: How has this year been going for you? You’ve had quite the hot start.
HOWARD: It’s sort of revamping the way I play and to be less aggressive and sit back a little bit more, which is allowing me not only see plays develop but also watch how the puck’s coming off a guy’s stick and giving myself that extra split second to react to a shot rather than just being out of the net and hoping it hits you.
How was this decision made to play less aggressive?
To be honest with you it came from our coach, Jeff Blashill for both Petr and I to be a little less aggressive in the net so it allows us to make second and third saves when necessary.
How does one train to be less aggressive?
I’m still training, still training myself. I still find myself in there sometimes being a little bit too aggressive but really, really I’m focusing in on it in practice, especially when we’re doing our drills where guys are just coming in and firing it from the middle – not getting frustrated with myself when pucks are going in during practice, but constantly forcing myself to be a little bit less aggressive and really working to pushing into shots.
Is it hard to put trust in the coaching staff to play a different way than you’ve played before?
It can be difficult at times. There are still times in games where I do go back to the aggressive nature that I’ve always had, but I find myself liking the way I’m playing right now and just basically just the game’s a lot easier. It’s slowing down a lot when you’re not as aggressive. You’re able to get from Point A to Point B on the ice a lot quicker and especially on your feet so you’re set for the shot.
What was last summer like for you with some of the trade rumors? Was it stressful?
No, I played golf and hung out with my family. I didn’t really think about it that much … I didn’t allow myself, I should probably say, to think about it and just went about my business as usual. I actually reside in Detroit, so I belong to the Detroit Golf Club. We have a great group of guys that play there a couple of times a week so that’s good.
How did you avoid those rumors when you live in Detroit? I assume they were everywhere.
I have good friends, nobody talks about hockey (laughs).
The last few years haven’t gone that well for you. You’re still not that old. Did you think that it would turn around for you at some point or did you worry that it wouldn’t?
My confidence never swayed one way or another. I knew I still had a lot of years left and I just figured in order for me to change in this game is that I had to adapt. This game is getting so much faster with these young guys that are coming into the league and the way coaching is going now, you have to go fast and when you’re going fast you have to go even faster, so it was really a mindset that ‘if I want to stick around and want to play a lot more years’ then I have to adapt.
How does that speed impact goaltending?
You can’t be aggressive. You have to be able to read, you have to be able to read the slot, read what shot the guys are and what’s going on around you. I feel like backing off just a little but still keeping that aggressive nature and athleticism I’m used to playing with and being able to read the play I think is what keeps a goalie ahead of some of these fast guys nowadays.
I take it experience helps with reading the play?
We all know basically going in tonight who the big guys are and what the tendencies are of every single team. It’s really upon yourself as a goaltender to get yourself ready to read the pre-scouts and everything like that and what guys like to do.
What’s your take on this two-goaltender system you have with Petr?
I think it’s imperative now for the NHL. This league, every single night points are imperative and every single night you’re looking to get two points but you’re hoping to get at least the one because at the end of the day, the parity throughout the league is so tight now, more so than ever. It puts a lot of strain if you’re just going to run with one guy all year.
What led you to the decision to put Dave Strader’s face on the back of your goaltending mask for Hockey Fights Cancer night in Detroit?
Ed note: Strader, a former longtime Red Wings broadcaster is currently battling bile duct cancer.
That was actually the painters’ decision to put Dave on the back of the mask. We all know how humble Dave is. It’s the last thing he would probably want is to be on the back but it was a great gesture and something we started several years ago. It’s small but it generates a lot.
What do you know about Dave and his Red Wings history?
I’ve met Dave a couple of times and from my understanding in the very little I’ve talked to him, he’s a very genuine sincere man, so it was awesome to be able to do something like that as he goes through this battle.
Are you humbled by how this took off?
Yeah, I mean it was a great response by everyone on the mask and it was really cool. It was something I wasn’t really expecting how viral it went but at the same time it’s something that’s very easy and very small for, I think for us to do as an organization, which generates a lot of not only feedback but generates some good money too in order to go to research.
It must make you feel good overall to know you were able to generate support for a good cause. Does that still humble you after all these years as a pro athlete?
I mean, everyone loves masks when it comes to goalies. People always enjoy looking at all the different creations coming out there and how personalities come out on guys’ masks and everything. It’s just a great way to give back.
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