Krupa: Howard was all but gone before revival

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Jimmy Howard

Detroit — Jim Devellano stood with some writers in the visitors’ dressing room in Buffalo after the Red Wings beat the Sabres, 2-1, on Nov. 23.

Approaching the Thanksgiving week marker, when management takes stock of playoff hopes for the club, the Red Wings did not instill confidence.

But their goalie did.

Perhaps 15 feet from Devellano, having just stopped 32 of the Sabres’ 33 shots, Jimmy Howard pulled off the pads.

As he watched, Devellano said what Red Wings fans had likely concluded. With the club having designated Petr Mrazek the top goalie two months earlier and the expansion draft looming, it was clear.

“We had pretty much told him good-bye,” Devellano said of Howard.

Referring to Howard’s stellar performance in relief of Mrazek, a rare piece of stability in the first 20 games, Devellano said, “And he told us to … ”

Devellano concluded with an expletive, indicating Howard’s performance disdained the circumstances.

With a smile and a shake of his head, the former general manager, who guided the big 30-year-old resurrection of the franchise, said, “You’ve really got to respect that.”

Devellano pounded “really” like a percussionist striking a kettle drum.

Fans don’t like it

The Red Wings’ decision to protect Howard, 33, and expose Mrazek, 25, to the vagaries of the expansion draft roiled a large chunk of the fans. Social media, readers’ comments and talk radio provide strong evidence.

It is declared, in a fairly wide swath of the NHL hot-stove media community, the most interesting decision among the 30 teams protecting players from selection by the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights.

Petr Mrazek

When a big decision is declared interesting, most of the people declaring it so are far along in the belief it is a bad one.

But Devellano provided some early context.

Mrazek’s play has disappointed both player and team because of a lack of consistency since about mid-February 2016.

Since then, at moments when he was counted on, perhaps a bit unfairly, to lift an inconsistent team in obvious decline, Mrazek sometimes presents more problems in net than he solved.

Having dispatched long-time goal tending coach Jim Bedard, in favor of Mrazek’s coach in Grand Rapids, Jeff Salajko, at the same time they were essentially declaring Mrazek the No. 1 goalie, the Red Wings hoped that with some extra work, Mrazek would shake it off.

But there is another moment in a dressing room that is revealing about the Wings decision to protect the older goalie, who is playing better now, but has had some inconsistency of his own, over time.

When Mrazek first showed up in the Red Wings’ dressing room in February 2012, his self-assurance radiated. Asked the standard media question, “Are you nervous?” Mrazek did not provide the usual answer, concerning the need of an athlete to balance intense anticipation with remaining in the moment and confidence. “I’m never nervous,” Mrazek said.

The scribes and TV folks paused, waiting for a bit of elaboration along the usual lines. Mrazek’s only elaboration asserted his supreme confidence.

It became his trademark.

But, even in those earliest moments, a question lingered.

What happens, if the confidence is not fully examined, when events in a goalie’s career make that mentality a mistake?

Mrazek is a good goalie, and the Red Wings may well have made a considerable error.

But, throughout his decade in the Wings net, I have had a higher appraisal of Howard than most fans, certainly, and some paid observers. His performance in the 2013 playoffs, as an All-Star the first three months of 2014-15 and his brilliance in the first two month last season are among the best evidence.

I believe Mrazek holds perhaps greater promise. But he has not looked good, consistently, for a season-and-a-half.

And he has an issue, periodically, it seems.

Move makes sense

His footwork in the crease sometimes suffers. It is as if he fails to discipline the tendency to try to do just a bit too much. His far rarer glitch, taking too large a risk while roaming from the crease, is sort of a similar symptom of perhaps the same thing.

It is as if he is too confident.

A 3.04 goals against average and .901 save percentage across 54 games played last season counsels the need for humble rededication.

The Wings would like to have the confidence of knowing Mrazek understands that.

They have signaled they do not.

The Red Wings trumpet the need to “preserve the culture.”

It is clear there will be some several seasons full of the sort of training required when “building from within.”

The point of view up-and-down the organization is that a lot of young men are asked to curb ego enough to learn the NHL game the way the Red Wings intend to play it.

For them, too much confidence is sometimes a dangerous thing.