Sunday, June 23, 2013

Red Storm Rising - Part 4: One is a Lonely Number

(Editor's Note: This article is the 4th and final part of an ongoing series, offering an in-depth look at the Red Wing's roster and it's potential evolution in the future. Part 1 of the series looks at blueliners, Part 2 discusses the present forward situation and Part 3 looks a forward prospects in the Wings farm system.) 

For a man who is himself a retired NHL goalkeeper; Ken Holland's tenure as general manager has seen the Red Wings change netminders almost as fast as some people change socks. In the time period between Holland's ascension to the GM's chair and the Wings' last cup win in 2008, the team went through no less than 5 starting keepers; 7 if you count return visits from Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood after leaving the team. If you're doing the math at home, that works out to changing your starting goalie roughly once every 1.5 years; and that's not even counting the fact that Holland began his managing career by swapping Mike Vernon out for Chris Osgood to begin the team's 97 Cup defense. Naturally, not all of the turnover was by design; at various points over the years Hasek retired, Osgood was released, Joseph was simply terrible, Hasek un-retired, Manny Legace broke down mentally and finally Hasek eventually got too old to steal his job back, so he retired again. Regardless of why, for years it seemed the Wings went into almost every offseason "an elite goaltender away from being the Stanley Cup favorite" and so, Holland was forced to constantly tinker with the position as the previous rental wore out or proved ineffective. Additionally, with the imposition of the salary cap in 2005; market realities dictated that Holland rely on cheaper goaltenders to keep his stunning array of core skill players together as long as possible. While these decisions were rarely popular at the time, few would argue with the results in retrospect; back to back finals appearances and a 2008 Stanley Cup victory have a funny way of altering memories only 5 seasons later. Fortunately for everyone involved, the arrival of Jimmy Howard in 2009 seems to have provided Holland with the necessary stability to end his goalie-swapping ways. Howard has served as the goaltender of note in each of the Red Wings' past 4 seasons, and a recent 6 year contract extension suggests that he will remain so in the near future.

The arrival of Howard also signified another significant change in the Wings' goaltending philosophy; the shift towards larger, more physically imposing netminders. To be fair, this is hardly a "Red Wing" thing so much as a league wide philosophical shift at the position. Although Howard is only 6' tall, he's bullishly strong at 2'18 lbs and his aggressive, challenging style stands in stark contrast to the acrobatic smurfs of seasons past. When you look at the rest of the expanded roster however, it's clear that the Red Wings' days of "mighty mite" goalies are definitively over. While the Wings' haven't gone "super big" at the position, current backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson is 6'3", while promising prospects Petr Mrazek and Jake Paterson are 6'1"; Holland's latest college free agent prize Jared Coreau actually checks in at a staggering 6'4" and 208lbs! Don't be fooled into thinking these men are merely lumbering trashcans who eat up space either; Detroit's stable of netminders are extremely athletic, with excellent lateral motion and the ability to rip off highlight reel saves. Although Holland's past history says he'll hoard anyone with NHL level talent, it seems clear that when drafting their own goaltending prospects the organization definitely believes that bigger and stronger is ultimately better.   

The Fire Inside: As regular readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I have grown to love and cherish Detroit starting netminder Jimmy Howard. In just 4 short seasons, Wings fans have watched Howard grow from slow developing prospect, to inconsistent battler and finally, into an elite, game-changing goaltender capable of swinging a playoff series by himself. Although many will point to his age (29) and slow development as indicators that Howard is not a great goalie; it is precisely this seasoning that has turned Howard into the excellent keeper he is today. Early in his career, Jimmy thrived primarily on heart, aggression and pure force of will. During his first season in Detroit, Howard attacked shooters with ferocity, making most of his saves at the top of the crease or even further out and frequently pushing and shoving with forwards on his doorstep. This endeared him to the Red Wings faithful but lead to some early struggles with consistency as the league's better forwards learned to use this aggression against him. For a time then, Howard actively worked on playing further back in his net and although the results were less than stellar (2010-11), it also allowed Howard to improve on the "reflex" saves and develop his now tremendous lateral movement skills. As Jimmy began to reintegrate his aggressive impulses, the result was a goalkeeper with all the necessary tools to dominate at the NHL level; although it would take until the 2013 season and playoffs for Howard to finally achieve the perfect balance between these tools. In short, Jimmy Howard has been playing professional hockey for 8 long years; carefully ironing out his deficiencies one by one until the player that remains is far greater than the sum of his talents would suggest he ever could be.

From a purely technically standpoint, there's a lot to love about Howard's game between the pipes at this point in his career. As previously mentioned Jimmy's strength and aggressive positioning serve to make him a much larger object in the net than his decidedly average, 6' height would otherwise allow. Howard is an absolute master of cutting down angles and dropping forward on his knees rather than rocking backward as he closes in on the puck carrier. This allows him to present his chest, shoulders and active stick directly at the shooter while still giving him a wide, solid base with which to absorb contact and continue tracking the puck. Howard's hand placement is an equally important element of this play style; by keeping his gloves forward and angled to intercept rising shots, Howard prevents shooters from punishing him for challenging them so brazenly. It certainly doesn't hurt that Howard has one of the quickest trappers in the NHL; although he often fails to completely capture the puck, a quick search on Youtube will reveal that he is extremely difficult to beat on the glove side. Like most aggressive keepers, Jimmy is also an exceptional skater. Unlike other mobile goalies however, he eschews the modern upright "pro fly" stance for an extremely wide, low base (pictured right) more typical of a classic smaller, more acrobatic keeper. This allows Howard to tempt shooters with a gaping five hole while still giving him the necessary balance to actively close the door in a heartbeat when they try to put the puck there. Howard's noticeably loose leg pads aid in this endeavor tremendously but it's his ability to get back up and down again once he sets that make his play style so effective. Although the end result often resembles a chicken with it's head cut off ; Howard consistently finds a way to keep pucks out of the net and he isn't the first goalie in NHL history to excel with a hyper-frenetic playstyle.

If Howard has a downside at this point in his career it's likely his inconsistent rebound control, decidedly average blocker hand and periodic tendency to submit an absolute clunker of a game with little or no warning. One of the reasons Howard makes so many highlight reel saves is because he still hasn't mastered deflecting pucks into the corners off of his leg pads and watching his aggressive play style on film, it's seems fair to ask if he ever will. Although Howard is much better at freezing pucks shot into the middle of the net than he was as a youngster; his unique leg pad positioning seems to cause shots taken low and away to bounce directly back to the hashmarks more often than my heart can take. For now, Howard is usually quick enough to recover and clean his own trash but as he ages, it could become a career ending issue if he doesn't learn to put the puck in the corner more often. Jimmy's blocker issues are mostly a function of modern goaltending conventions; like most pro-fly or hybrid goaltenders, Howard uses a shorter goal stick that leaves extra space high on the blocker side. More space unsurprisingly leads to more goals, and Howard can't compensate as quickly on the stick side as he can with his glove. The upside is, it's easier for Howard to use his stick during lateral movements and as a point of support when he's going up and down to make saves. Finally, while teammates and coaches are forever praising Jimmy's ability to shrug off a bad goal, at times the eye test simply doesn't bear this out. In fact it's quite the opposite, many times during the past 4 years an early soft goal has lead to Howard breaking down mentally and submitting a very mediocre performance. While thankfully these meltdowns rarely occur in important games and for the most part Howard is a very good keeper; it's certainly fair to say that when he's bad, he's remarkably bad. The simple truth is that after 4 NHL seasons, Howard's positives vastly outweigh his negatives as a goalkeeper and as such the Red Wings are prepared to go forward with Jimmy in the nets for the foreseeable future. He's talented, reliable and consistently displays the kind of leadership and commitment a franchise goaltender must provide for a Stanley Cup contender. Although I don't like the play the goalie ranking game; Howard's past two regular seasons have firmly entrenched him amongst the NHL's top 10 netminders. His ability to dominate in the 2013 playoffs however suggested that Howard might be on the verge of breaking into the elite top 4 or 5 goalies in the league; at this point it's all a question of maintaining his current level of play for a full season and beyond.

A Riddle of Monstrous Proportions: While Howard's development and contract have resolved Detroit's starting goalie situation, the back-up picture is decidedly more murky. For the present moment, reserve keeper duties will fall to 6'3", hyper athletic Swedish netminder Jonas Gustavsson. That is of course, assuming he can stay healthy; last season, injuries limited Gustavsson to a parts of a mere 7 games and opened the door for management to get a brief look at promising prospect Petr Mrazek. What's more, Gustavsson's performance when he actually was available to play really didn't do him any favors in that regard; his 2.92 goals against average was decent, but a 0.879 save percentage is completely unacceptable in the modern NHL. The frustrating part is that Jonas actually has a tremendous amount of natural talent; his long legs, ridiculous lateral movement and active glove hand make him a danger to stop shots other keepers would have no business even touching. From a technical standpoint, Jonas is a pure "Allaire"-style butterfly goaltender, but his unusually lanky frame serves to magnify his ability to eat up space within that system. Unfortunately, Gustavsson is also extremely inconsistent, seems to lose track of his position in relation to the net with some regularity and often plays so far back in his crease that his size becomes a non-factor. At this point it would be certainly fair for Wings' fans and management to ask "exactly who the heck is Jonas Gustavsson anyways?" Is he the freakishly talented athlete who spawned the nickname "Monster" and a plethora of loving Youtube tributes? Or is he just another Francois Allaire robot who's game has been exposed once NHL forwards learned to adjust to his "Gumby-esque"physique?    

Truthfully, while the 2013-14 season will likely answer some of these questions for Jonas Gustavsson, the end result is unlikely to benefit the Red Wings in the long term. Gustavsson is only 28 years old and he's in the last year of a 1.5 million a year contract. If he turns his career around next season, Jonas will be in line to receive both more money and more playing time; options that are unlikely to excite a front office that already has Howard and Mrazek. If however he gets hurt again or continues to flounder, there's virtually no incentive for Ken Holland to keep him around long term. In other words; enjoy the highlight reel saves while you can Wings' fans, because Gustavsson is as good as gone come 2014-15.

The Heir Apparent: Of course, the reason Ken Holland doesn't have to be overtly concerned with where Gustavsson will play in 2014-15 is because the Wings have a much more promising player waiting in Grand Rapids; Petr Mrazek. In fact, Mrazek has been so good that some Wings' fans have begun to rumble about Howard's 6 year contract; because it might block Mrazek's ascension to NHL stardom! While on the surface this may seem like wishful thinking on behalf of a spoiled fanbase; a careful examination of Petr's performance at every level of competition he's been exposed to, suggests otherwise. In just over a year Mrazek has lead his junior team to the OHL conference finals, backstopped his country to the quarterfinals of the 2012 World Junior Championships, played himself beyond the ECHL in 3 games, earned a 2 game, cup of coffee call up with the senior Wings and won the Calder Cup as the starting goaltender of the Grand Rapids Griffins. As impressive as those accomplishments are on the surface, the are only magnified by the strength of Petr's performances and the fact that he's burst onto the scene at such a young age; Mrazek is still only 21 years old. The really scary part however is how far he's come already, in such a short period of time. Mrazek was Detroit's 5th round draft pick in 2010, which gives you some idea of how meteoric his rise to stardom has truly been. He wasn't considered amongst the best keepers heading into the 2012 WJHC; he merely became a first team all-star and won the goaltender of the tournament award. Heading into this season he was supposed to compete with Thomas McCollum and Jordan Pierce for playing time; instead he made both men organizational afterthoughts and won himself an AHL championship in the process. At this point Mrazek has done nothing except display the kind of talent, potential and polish that will make it virtually impossible to keep him out of the NHL in the very near future.

When looking at Mrazek from a scouting standpoint, the first thing that stands out is his otherworldly quickness and athleticism. While Jimmy Howard's ability to recover quickly after dropping to his knees is impressive; he has absolutely nothing on a goalie gear wearing gymnast like Mrazek. Petr can and does routinely make the kind of highlight reel saves that change momentum and leave opposing forwards shaking their heads in disbelief. No less an authority than legendary junior hockey coach Brian Kilrea described Mrazek as the kind of player who "makes the impossible seem so easy" and he even managed to provoke Wings' coach Mike Babcock to some rare encouraging words during his time with the senior club last season. Despite his tremendous athletic gifts however, it would be a mistake to assume Petr is your typical lighting-bug keeper, getting by purely on his reflexes and agility; Mrazek's best asset may actually be his extremely well developed mental game. Mrazek is intense, focused and tremendously competitive when it comes to stopping the puck. He never gives up on a shot, works to find sight lines through screens and isn't afraid to pay the price physically to keep the puck out of his basket. He doesn't get rattled and has the necessary superhuman confidence to dominate shooters in breakaway or shootout situations. Finally, Mrazek plays the position with a rare level of passion and enthusiasm; watching him play it's very clear that he simply loves to play the game of hockey.

As far as downsides go, Mrazek doesn't have many to be honest; no prospect is perfect however and there are still minor holes you can poke in Petr's game. Although he's roughly the same height as Jimmy Howard, he's nowhere near as developed muscularly. Various prospect guides have him listed at 184lbs, and that might actually be fairly generous when you consider how much weight Mrazek probably loses in sweat over the course of a season, making all those highlight reel saves. This lack of strength and ballast means that Mrazek often plays "small" in the net and while he's still fairly aggressive; he doesn't have the physicality to stand his ground when surrounded by shooters. As far as playstyle goes, Mrazek is from the Dominik Hasek mold of goalkeeper; he doesn't have a style so much as a desperate, burning desire to stop the puck by any means possible. He tends to rely on his reflexes and instincts more than any sort of positioning or technique; which can at times leave him exposed to embarrassing goals when he "guesses" wrong. Much like Hasek; he also spends a great deal of time flopping around low on the ice, which can leave him vulnerable when elite forwards have the time and space to "roof" the puck into a high corner. Finally, while he's not a poor puck-handler by any stretch, Mrazek isn't as good as he thinks he is with the biscuit either; a scenario that will no doubt be familiar to Wings' fans who suffered through tense moments during the careers of similarly afflicted netminders Hasek and Chris Osgood.

Let's face it folks, none of Mrazek's faults will matter in the slightest if he can stop pucks at the NHL level like he's stopped them at every level he's competed at so far. Howard's entrenchment as a franchise netminder has afforded Holland the luxury of developing Petr slowly; but if he keeps playing like he has, there is absolutely no way he'll stay in Grand Rapids for the full 4 year "over-ripening" program other prospects have been forced to endure. In 3 short years time, Howard's 5.3 million dollar cap hit could look quite reasonable on the NHL trade market if Holland were to suddenly find himself blessed with a better, younger player in Mrazek. Of course, such a scenario is a long way off at this very moment but the simple truth is that the Wings' aren't necessarily married to Jimmy Howard for the next 6 years; if Petr Mrazek is the better goaltender the job will likely be his for the taking at some point down the road.

Farmhands With a Future: While it's tempting to assume that the Red Wings' future is already set between the pipes; a smart hockey follower knows that a team is only one injury or complete mental breakdown away from looking for a new goalie in the blink of an eye. In that regard it's important for an organization to have at least a few talented, young keepers, with some NHL potential in the farm system at all times. At this moment, the most talented goalie prospect in the Red Wing pipeline (besides Mrazek) is 19 year old junior; Jake Paterson. Although he's hardly hulking, the 6'1 goaltender is another example of a player who uses excellent positioning and a muscular body to "appear bigger than he is" and take away the entire bottom of the goal cage. He has good (not great) athleticism, notable mental resiliency and the necessary passion and desire to compete for every puck fired towards the goal. To be fair, Paterson is probably not an elite talent and while his positioning is solid, he could stand to work on his consistency and fundamentals. He does have a surprisingly fast glove hand however and he's already a very strong skater for a 19-year old goalie. He'll return to the OHL next season and with further seasoning, could be given a chance to win a spot on Team Canada for the 2014 WJHC tournament. Right now, Jake is viewed as more of a scrappy, battler type who could one day grow into an NHL, starting quality netminder. If he were to win the number 1 job for a nation as deep as Canada though, and then excel in the tournament itself; Paterson would put himself on the NHL map much the way Mrazek did in 2012.

Of course, Paterson is an awful long way away from getting his first taste of NHL action and as such; 21 year old college netminder Jared Coreau probably warrants more attention from Wings' fans in the here and now. The first thing scouts talk about when discussing Jared as a goaltending prospect is his ridiculous combination of size and athleticism. Simply put; a man as big and muscular as Coreau should not reasonably be as quick or agile as he is. In addition to his physical gifts, Jared is also blessed with tremendous confidence, a calm, steady playing demeanor and what appears to be a very strong work ethic. Coreau arrived at Northern Michigan as a skinny freshman with terrible technique and through hard work, he left a strapping, scholarly prospect with a legitimate NHL future. He's also tremendously tough; Coreau wordlessly played his past few seasons in college with a torn labrum in his left shoulder that required offseason surgery to repair. The downside is that, like most college goaltenders; Jared's technique, positioning and fundamentals are simply not at an NHL level right now. Holland competed with 7 other NHL team's for Coreau's signature in 2013 and it's hard to believe Jared would have signed with the Wings if he didn't believe he had a real chance at eventually making the senior club. With former prospect Thomas McCollum rapidly playing himself out of the Wings' plans and veteran, system depth keeper Jordan Pierce likely to move on to medical school; Jared should easily establish himself as the backup netminder in Grand Rapids next year. In time and with proper development, Coreau could have the inside shot at Detroit's backup goalie position 3-4 years from now; especially if the team moves Howard to make room for Mrazek.

As those of you who've taken the time to read this entire series (thank you) are no doubt aware; the current and future roster situation in Detroit is an incredibly complicated matter, with multiple moving parts, salary cap options and fall back plans. After 16 seasons, this has become the hallmark of Ken Holland's management style. He hoards talent and manipulates his roster for both the short and long term success of the franchise. The Wings' are dedicated to making the conference finals every season; a long term rebuilding project fueled by multiple top 5 draft picks is simply not in Holland's game plan. Not now and frankly not ever. Right now, the Wings' are in year 2 of a 3 year plan to turn over 75% of the roster that Holland set into motion as many as 4 seasons ago. Although he's been careful not to tip his hand too early; Holland himself has admitted that injuries forced the team to bring up several prospects a little earlier than management had intended. Perhaps, in the final analysis this will be a good thing; although Holland's long term vision is legendary, he can be downright miserly when it comes to awarding NHL playing time to promising Wings' prospects. If last year's success can convince management and coach Babcock that the next wave of Wings' prospects can be trusted sooner; the team can avoid dipping heavily into an already overpriced free agent market in the coming future.

In the end, I believe that the key to understanding Ken Holland's management of the Red Wings roster is to view him as a shockingly honest man, who has two stated, but at times diametrically opposed goals. For the past several years, Holland has been shouting from the mountaintops that the Red Wing's future will be built through the draft, while simultaneously stating that the franchise was trying to make at least the conference finals every season. While these may appear to be the ravings of a madman in light of the NHL's new fiscal realities, it's important to remember that Holland never promised to strive for both goals with the same players. To oversimplify; Holland clearly intends to use retreads, reclamation projects and discount, veteran free agents to keep the team competitive in the short time. At the same time however, he's refusing to sign the kind of long term contracts that would clog up roster spots beyond his 3 year rebuilding window. In this way, the future of the team very much will be forged through the draft; but only if and when the Wings' young prospects can play well enough to keep management's conference finals expectations alive. Holland knows that the tightrope he's walking now is a difficult path, but if he's successful; the Wings will have forged the kind of dynasty the NHL hasn't seen since the Montreal Canadians tore up the back half of the 1970's. The funny part is; Holland probably already has a good idea of what he's going to do if none of this works out and the entire Wings' farm system flops like a Bisquick pancake. That's the Detroit general manager for you; a man who has plans within plans and the courage to make at least some of them a reality for the Red Wings.

- Sportsball Chic



  1. Very well written article. Kudos.

    1. Thank you :) Just keep writing and eventually someone will notice right? :)

    2. They had better. I am working on a piece of my own and cite your writing as something to be aware of. Hopefully someone puts it up on their cite.