May 2, 2014 at 1:50 am

John Niyo

Competition might help Red Wings' Jimmy Howard after 'OK season'

'I think I can be a lot better, a lot more consistent for the guys, and that's what I'm going to work on over the summer,' Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. (David Guralnick / Detroit News)

Detroit — First he lost his lunch. Then he lost his job. Then he lost his head.

It wasn’t the best of weeks for Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, whose larger-than-life bobblehead statue outside Campus Martius was vandalized early Thursday morning, less than a week after he fell ill and his team was summarily dismissed from the playoffs.

Heads will roll, as they say. And though the missing noggin from Howard’s statue eventually was recovered near a railroad underpass, there’s no way to retrieve what was lost this past season for his team.

In the first year of a six-year, $31.75 million extension, Howard posted his worst numbers since a sophomore slump in 2010-11. He battled a knee injury all winter and what he called the most frustrating stretch of his five-year NHL career. And his hopes for a redemptive playoff run were cut short, first by a flu bug and then by the Bruins, the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Reflecting on all that this week, the 30-year-old called it “an OK season.”

“But by no means was it a good or great season,” added Howard, whose wife is expecting the couple’s second child this month. “I think I can be a lot better, a lot more consistent for the guys, and that’s what I’m going to work on over the summer.”

The summer arrived in early spring again for the Red Wings. And Howard doesn’t need anyone to remind him the “five-year drought” coach Mike Babcock referred to Tuesday — the Red Wings haven’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs since 2009 — directly coincides with his tenure as Detroit’s No. 1 goaltender.

It’s a demanding job, and Howard fully understands the expectations, especially after signing that long-term deal a year ago.

Fans balked at the money — and the term — in Howard’s new contract last winter, even though as it stands he’ll rank no higher than 13th among NHL goaltenders next season in terms of salary or cap hit.

Protection needed

Still, after finishing the season with subpar numbers — 21 wins in 50 starts, a 2.66 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage — Howard admits, “I can be a lot better, across the board.”

“Just with consistency alone and helping the guys get wins,” said Howard, who recorded a shutout in Game 1 against the Bruins but gave up a few easy ones the next two starts. “It was just one of those years. Statistic-wise, it wasn’t very good. I think I can be a lot better. I’ve proved in the past I’ve been a lot better. And that’s the way I want to be moving forward."

That’s what the Red Wings are counting on, no doubt. And their first priority has to be to protect him better by adding the top-four defenseman they should have brought in a year ago. Whether it’s in free agency or via trade, there’s no hiding the need now, even with youngsters Ryan Sproul and Xavier Ouellet ready to play in Detroit next season.

But the Red Wings would be smart to push Howard a bit more than they have to date, too.

After five seasons of often underwhelming play behind Howard — from the twilight years of Chris Osgood and Ty Conklin to the oft-injured Jonas Gustavsson — maybe it’s time for a different approach. Even if it runs counter to the long-held organizational philosophy of adding extra seasoning to the younger Red Wings players, letting them stew in the minors before throwing them into the fire.

“That’s why I try to keep them out of here as long as possible, because there’s big expectations when you play in the NHL,” general manager Ken Holland reiterated this week. “And when a player doesn’t live up to those expectations and that hope, people get down on them real fast.”

Eyes on Mrazek

Not surprisingly, then, the team seems reluctant to hand the backup goaltending job next season to top prospect Petr Mrazek. But that may be a mistake, since everyone in the organization agrees the young netminder, who backstopped the Griffins to a Calder Cup title as a rookie last spring, is anything but fragile. And if the Red Wings brass learned anything this season, it’s that their minor-league prospects might be better — and better prepared — than they thought.

“We believe we’ve got a 60-game No. 1 goalie (in Howard),” Holland said. “Is Petr Mrazek, as a 22-year-old, better off playing 15-18 games in the NHL or is he better off playing 65 games in the AHL for one more year? That’s the internal conversation we’ve got to have.”

Holland and Babcock were in Grand Rapids on Wednesday night, watching the Griffins drop their first-round playoff home opener. (Mrazek made a team-record 55 saves in the double-overtime series opener last week.) They’ve seen Mrazek in action in Detroit as well, most recently in a shutout victory over the Blues in the Red Wings regular-season finale.

The Red Wings can stash Mrazek in the AHL for one more season without him having to clear waivers, so there’s a chance they’ll try to re-sign Gustavsson — or another veteran — to a one-year deal. But at 29, Gustavsson’s likely looking for something more — “I’m just going to try to go where I can feel like I can take that next step,” he said — and the Red Wings might be, too, considering his injury history.

If so, maybe it’s time to give the backup job to a rookie. Not to mess with Howard’s mind, really. Just to give the next guy a head start.

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