January 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm

John Niyo

Wings' Jimmy Howard stays focused on the goal

Plymouth -- The Red Wings have always valued experience. And certainly, as the team gets ready for the puck to drop on this lockout-shortened regular season Saturday night in St. Louis, there is considerable value in the experience goaltender Jimmy Howard provides.

But what's he worth beyond that, really? That's a question Howard undoubtedly will try to answer in the coming months, even as he steadfastly refuses to entertain it in his own mind.

Howard, in the back half of a two-year, $4.5 million contract extension he signed in February 2011, begins his fourth full season as starter as the NHL's 27th-highest-paid goalie. And a pending free agent next summer.

But before you wonder about what his future holds, he'll remind you that it doesn't do him any good to do the same. In fact, as he discovered a couple years ago, it's generally a bad idea to let business interfere with, well, business.

"You want to go out there and prove yourself," said Howard, 28, who earned his first NHL All-Star honor last season, leading the league in wins at the break. "But especially in a contract year, I think guys have a tendency to overdo it. And that's what I learned last time, is to just keep everything in check."

So when it comes to paychecks, he'll simply say what he has maintained all along — "This is where I want to be," he said Monday — and then focus on what really matters: Stopping pucks, while ignoring everything else in front of him.

"I think it's just a learning experience, what I went through last time," Howard said. "It can creep up on you. When you're constantly thinking about it, you've just got to brush it aside, go out and do your job and know that everything will fall into place."

Ups and downs

After a terrific 2009-10 debut as a starter — Howard was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie — he endured a sophomore slump. Playing out his entry-level rookie contract, Howard struggled to find his groove for much of the winter and finished with pedestrian numbers: a 2.79 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

But after finally agreeing to the two-year extension that February — not long after he learned his wife Rachel was pregnant with their first child — Howard rebounded with a solid showing in the spring. He posted a 2.49 GAA and .923 save percentage in the playoffs, helping the Wings sweep Phoenix and then rally from a 3-0 series deficit to force San Jose to a Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals.

"When you go out there and you're forcing things or you're forcing the issue, that's when pucks are gonna go into the net," said Howard, Detroit's top pick (63rd overall) in the 2003 entry draft. "And when you're trying to make saves instead of just letting the puck hit you, that's when holes are gonna open up. That's what happened last time. I was trying to make everything look absolutely perfect instead of just going out there and playing."

And now that the NHL is ready to play some actual games again, Howard says that's all he intends to do: Just play.

Unlike last time when, as teammate-turned-coach Chris Osgood suggests, "I think he was holding everything in," this time Howard should be better prepared to block everything out, starting with that expiring contract.

"I don't think it'll affect him whatsoever," said Osgood, Howard's close friend and mentor before and after his retirement two years ago. "He's a mature 28 now. He's not a young 28. He's been around, seen pretty much everything there is to see."

Contract talks

As for what the Wings see in Howard, only time will tell. Ask general manager Ken Holland what he likes about Howard and he'll tell you "he's a workhorse, a guy who can go out there night after night." But he stops short of calling him an elite player at his position.

"I think we've got a good NHL goalie," the GM says, adding that at 28, "he's a goalie really coming into his prime years."

And while there seems to be little doubt Howard will spend those years in Detroit, nothing is certain, including the market price with the ink still drying on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Last summer, the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings signed Jonathan Quick, their 26-year-old playoff MVP, to a 10-year, $58 million blockbuster. Dallas signed Kari Lehtonen to a five-year, $29.5 million extension after a career-best year.

But it's worth noting that since the 2004-05 lockout that brought a salary-cap to the NHL, only two of the seven Cup-winning goalies — Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury and Boston's Tim Thomas — boasted top-10 salaries at their position.

"We want to keep him in Detroit," said Holland, when I asked him about signing Howard to another extension. "I don't know when we'll get at it. I don't have a timetable. … But certainly at some point we'll have some conversations to see if there's a reason to talk or see if there's a reason to wait till the end of the year."

In the meantime, the workhorse figures to get plenty of work, even with an upgraded backup in Jonas Gustavsson, who'll make $1.5 million this summer after signing in Detroit as a free agent last summer.

With 48 games in 99 days in this compressed schedule, and little room for error in the playoff chase, Howard said, "It's gonna be like a playoff atmosphere out there every time out."

When asked how he'll cope with that kind of work-related stress, Howard joked, "I'll probably sleep a lot more this season than in years past."

And rest easier, presumably, knowing what he already knows.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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Damien Brunner tries to get the puck past goalie Jimmy Howard during the Red-White scrimmage Tuesday at Compuware Arena in Plymouth. / David Guralnick/Detroit News
Jimmy Howard faces a shot from Henrik Zetterberg during the Wingsí Red and ... (David Guralnick/Detroit News)
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