At what point does success breed a kind of blind stubbornness that can eventually lead to failure? What happens when “my way or the highway” eventually erodes your roads to success?
When it comes to the Detroit Red Wings, it’s pretty tough to lob too many grenades of criticism. The team is almost hyperbole-proof. For just about the entirety of my professional sports consciousness,* the Red Wings have been in the playoffs ... and not just in that “just get in there and bow out” kind of way that the St. Louis Blues did when they had their impressive postseason streak in the Al MacInnis days.
So, yes, it’s difficult - maybe even dangerous - to doubt Detroit’s decisions. I can’t help but do that after they signed Jimmy Howard to a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension.
Now, before you alert the scariest and most brazen Red Wings fans to be mean to me, let me say this much: Howard is actually a good goalie. Really good, even. Let me explain a little further, and then I’ll try to gauge where he ranks in the netminder stratosphere.
SLOWING DOWN FOR THE JONESES
Most people expected this to be a down season for Detroit because the Red Wings needed to learn how to cope with life after Nicklas Lidstrom. While the seemingly superhuman Swedish stopper still could play quite a bit, it was obvious that he was also slowing down considerably toward the tail end of his career.
In a way, the Red Wings paralleled Lidstrom’s decline as a whole. It’s not that this team fell apart in some disastrous way; instead, it was more like decay.
If you think of international scouting as a family fighting over pizza, the Red Wings were the sibling who would try the pies with extravagant sauces while everyone fought over standard pepperoni slices. Nowadays, Detroit probably knows how to find the slices with some of the best arrays of ingredients, but other people realize that alfredo sauce can be a delicious substitute for marinara. The embarrassment of riches has morphed into something much closer to an even playing field.
(Hopefully you’re not reading this in that awkward period right before lunch.)
Still, the Red Wings have shown an ability to think on their feet for so long that it depresses me to see them maybe possibly deteriorate into just another solid franchise. Paying less for goalies seemed like one of the few areas where the Red Wings stood out from the crowd, with very few exceptions (especially if Steve Yzerman gets the axe in Tampa Bay).
Now that’s gone, even if Howard’s price tag isn’t exorbitant. It’s just - and this word hurts to type - typical.
ROTTEN OUTSIDE THE CORE
OK, let’s move on to a few bits that are less about real-life team building and more about fantasy hockey (then I’ll circle back to Howard’s value). As I look at the Red Wings financial structure, it’s clear that this team might just get worse. I mean, unless GM Ken Holland has tricks up his sleeves that he’s been hiding for an increasingly uncomfortable amount of time ...
Pavel Datsyuk ($6.7 million cap hit through 2013-14) - That’s not a bad price for Datsyuk, even if it’s far from chump change. It makes you wonder what will happen after next season, especially if one of the league’s worth-the-price-of-admission guys gets seduced by the lure of the contract year jump. While he’s so established that the desperation might not be there (and might decide to wind down in the KHL), he also could be worthy of even greater consideration when you draft next year.
Valtteri Filppula ($3 million expires after this season) - While I suspect his acknowledged injury problems probably explain some of the issues, it's still stunning how poorly things have gone for the typo magnet. Since a four-game point streak ended on March 20, he has just one goal and one assist (the helper coming on April 14) in the last 13 games. About the only plus side is that the Red Wings might get unexpected savings on the floundering Finn this summer.
Mikael Samuelsson ($3 million cap hit through 2013-14): That contract was stunning the day it was signed and gets dumber by the minute. It expands the argument that Detroit management is resting on its laurels to the point that you wonder if a failed GM is impersonating Holland like Mystique.
Danny Cleary ($2.8 million expires this summer) - His contract being up isn't as troubling when you consider his lowly output this season (13 points in 42 GP).
Damien Brunner ($1.35 million, RFA this summer) - Well, so much for guys whose putrid outputs might limit a raise. Sure, Brunner's had some growing pains, but the Red Wings need guys like him.
There are other guys who only have a little bit left on their deals (like Jonas Gustavsson), but the players above are the most intriguing. Are the top-heavy Red Wings going to keep getting thinner? While I agree that it’s best to pay your core players, Detroit could really use a boost. Unless they start paying up via trades or free agency, it’s tough to see that happening.
Then again, they’ve persisted by defying expectations before, so maybe their well-respected prospect pool will bail them out.
Jump for discussion of Howard’s spot in the goalie ranks and general thoughts.
* - Which developed sometime after I learned to speak, walk and admire the comic witticisms of Big Bird.
Again, it’s not that the market wouldn’t hand Howard at least $5.3 million per year, it’s that the Red Wings gave away their flexibility and now must hold their breath that a franchise guy doesn’t turn into a dud.
At 29, there’s an argument that Howard’s prime years are waning, but goalies seem to age pretty well. At least compared to skaters.
The real problem is that goalies are an unpredictable breed. One year’s Vezina Trophy winner could be next year’s albatross contract in leg pads.
Still, how good is Howard, really? Let’s look at his save percentage numbers from the four seasons where he was given heavy starts.
2013 season: 36 games played, .933 even strength, .895 PK, .920 overall
2011-12: 57 GP, .929 even strength, .85 PK, .920 overall
2010-11: 63 GP, .916 even strength, .884 PK, .908 overall
2009-10: 61 GP, .925 even strength, .980 PK, .924 overall
When you break things down, the numbers tell you what Red Wings fans have probably noticed: he’s been good to very good for almost all of his NHL career ... but he’s really jumped a level in the last two seasons. This one, in particular, has featured strong work.
Is he elite? I’m not sure, but he’s close enough that the Red Wings are making a smarter gamble than most (*cough* It’s not like they overpaid Ondrej Pavelec. *cough cough*).
So, while I’ve rattled on about how much of a bummer it is that Detroit allowed the Joneses to catch up to them, the Red Wings at least invested in a guy who’s been a steal - and stealing an admirable amount of pucks - for years.
If you HAVE to pay a goalie big, they made a respectable choice. I just happen to think that when it comes to netminders, the path less taken might just be the right one.
INJURY NOTES (full list) and QUICK HITS
The Bruins-Senators game was moved to April 28, which means it’s likely that it won’t matter for fantasy reasons. (At least I’m guessing it won’t.) Interestingly, the NBA decided to cancel a Celtics game altogether because of the tragedies ... Joffrey Lupul returned to action on Tuesday. He might take a game or two to get up to speed, but he’s worth starting/nabbing ... Ilya Kovalchuk is expected to practice on Wednesday, so stay tuned for what could be a big update (one way or another) ... Jeff Skinner left last night’s game and didn’t return after a hit by Jared Cowen, who returned from a lengthy bout with injuries himself. Hard not to worry about Skinner considering his concussion history, but not much of an update yet ... Can’t say I expected this, but Patrice Bergeron is “highly probable” to play tonight. Not sure that’s the best move, although the Northeast Division IS still up for grabs ... Evgeni Malkin’s status seems mysterious. Maybe it’s more than a sunburn on his shoulder, after all ... I’d be surprised if you had T.J. Oshie in the first place, but if so, drop him; he had ankle surgery that leaves him week-to-week ... You might be TOO shocked by an NHL Network info bit that reveals Alex Ovechkin’s 16 goals in 18 games since March 17, but guess who’s in second? Teammate Mike Green, who’s scored eight in 14 during that same period.