Krupa: Goaltending questions persist for Red Wings

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Jimmy Howard

Detroit — It is Petr Mrazek’s turn to do the extra, remedial work.

Jimmy Howard already was seated on the stool in front of his stall Thursday, stripping off his jersey and gear, when Mrazek walked in.

Just ahead of the goaltending coach Jim Bedard, with whom he had drilled hard for extra time on the ice, Mrazek glanced over his shoulder, smiled and said, “I was in position.”

With an even bigger smile, Bedard was all about easy-going encouragement.

“Good job, buddy!” he said.

Practice was over. Now, who starts tonight?

With five games left, is Howard the only fully confident, capable goaltender for the Red Wings?

The margin for error is minuscule.

For the first 32 games this season, the performances of Mrazek and Howard provided the Wings with their only consistency. Howard faded in mid-December, the precise moment Mrazek caught fire, seizing the No. 1 designation and keeping the team well within playoff position.

By the end of February, Howard’s game was back. As March wore on, Mrazek began to look bad.

Has he lost so much performance, so much confidence after being pulled in three of his last for starts that Howard should carry the duties exclusively?

And if the Red Wings beat the odds and make the playoffs, what then?

‘Find a way’

They are important questions, and they foreshadow even more important questions this summer, when the Wings will decide whether to keep two goaltenders whose salaries are likely to total $10 million, or which to offer in a trade that might prove critical for the future.

Asked about his confidence Thursday, Mrazek offered reassurance.

“I am always confident,” he said with an easy smile. “It’s a fun game to play. You just have to find a way, and there’s five games left.

“But I have to battle hard, and do the best I can.”

The fact of the matter is Mrazek has looked far less self-assured in recent performances.

Amid the quickness in the crease that is a great strength of his game, he can sometimes stray. Becoming too assertive, his lightning-quick movements can take him out of position.

At that point, the hockey cliché about “letting the game come to you” is imperative.

Asked about it, Mrazek demurred, “Oh, I wouldn’t say I’m moving too much.

“I am working on my step action in the crease, be as big as I can and, you know, stopping most of the pucks that I can.”

Howard’s extra work with Bedard was critical. By Feb. 21, when he shut out the Rangers until they scored on him at 1 minute 59 seconds of overtime, it was clear the 2015 All-Star had recovered his form.

Mrazek and the Red Wings do not have that luxury of time now.

Howard is the most reliable goaltender and, if he continues to be, he should get the starts.

But the schedule includes two sets of back-to-backs — the Wild tonight and Maple Leafs on Saturday, and the Flyers on Wednesday and Bruins on Thursday — when Mrazek will receive strong consideration.

‘Numerous factors’

Unwilling to name his starter against the Wild, Jeff Blashill said recent performance is heavily weighted.

“There’s numerous factors that go into it, recent performance, history, resume, how guys have done against the team,” Blashill said. “But lots of it has got to do with performance, lots of it has got to do with where I think they’re at in their games.”

Mrazek is a restricted free agent making about $738,000, and Howard makes about $5.3 million.

Mrazek’s new deal likely would mean $10 million, or about 13.5 percent of the expected salary cap, tied up in two goaltenders. Only one of the 30 franchises does that now.

A prospective expansion draft would remove one of those salaries at the end of next season. But the state of the Red Wings roster after what is clearly a disappointing season, regardless of whether they make the playoffs, suggests an active summer for general manager Ken Holland.

After a fourth season of rebuilding on the fly, trading a goaltender might pay a big dividend.

Until recently, it seemed likely it would be Howard. But, even then, it was likely Mrazek would attract more value in a transaction.

Given his age, 24 compared to Howard’s 32, Mrazek’s brilliant play from mid-December to mid-February and puck-handling abilities that Howard cannot match, it likely remains true.

But Howard has struggled with consistency in consecutive seasons.

Which goalie stays could be determined by what each can fetch in a trade.

As for the status of his contract, Mrazek was matter of fact, “It’s five games left and see what happens after the season.

“Then we can talk about it.”