Niyo: Will trade deadline spell Jimmy Howard's end as Red Wing?

John Niyo
The Detroit News

We’re forced to make tradeoffs as we get older, juggling marriage and family and work. That's just part of the deal.

And it’s with that in mind that Jimmy Howard, the Red Wings’ veteran goaltender, views his latest professional honor, representing the Red Wings at the NHL All-Star game in San Jose later this month.

While some of his teammates will head to tropical destinations for some much-needed rest and relaxation following a seven-day road trip to western Canada, Howard instead will pack his skates and equipment for a four-day trip to San Jose, Calif. There he’ll be joined by his wife, Rachel, and their three young children for a weekend of … more hockey.

“Laying on a beach would be nice,” Howard admitted Monday, laughing after another midseason practice at Little Caesars Arena. “But I’m still looking forward to it, mostly because my boys are so fired up to go.”

Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard

Those boys — James and Henry — are ages 7 and 4 now, joined recently by an 8-month-old sister, Olivia. And if dad’s feeling a bit conflicted about this upcoming working vacation, well, they’re certainly not.

“They ask every single day when we’re going,” Howard said. “Especially Henry. Every morning it’s, ‘When are we going to California? When are we going to California?’ So they’re really excited for it, and I can’t wait for them to partake in it.”

This is the third All-Star nod for Howard, who made his NHL debut back in 2005 and is now in his 10th season as a mainstay in Detroit.

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His first All-Star trip was something special, not just as affirmation that he’d arrived as one of the game’s top goalies in January 2012, notching 30 wins in 42 starts as he backstopped the Wings’ to the league’s best record at the break that winter. But also because the game was in Ottawa — less than 90 minutes from his hometown of Ogdensburg, N.Y. — and he was a brand-new dad, celebrating the milestone with 3-month old James Russell Howard IV in tow.

The second All-Star berth in 2015 was called off almost as soon as it was on, though, what with Howard getting carted off the ice on a stretcher after suffering a groin injury in a game the same night the rosters were announced.

Third time a charm

So this time, yes, ‘it’ll be a lot different,” Howard said. For one thing, his sons play hockey now — James skates for the Oakland Kodiaks — and they’re eager to meet some of their favorite NHL stars, like Connor McDavid and Patrick Kane.

But there’s also this feeling that comes with age and experience, something Howard often heard earlier in his career from some his older teammates.  

“Guys always say, ‘Enjoy it because it goes by in a flash,’” said Howard, who’ll become just the eighth U.S.-born goalie to play 500 career games in the NHL sometime next month. “And in the grand scheme of things, it does. It feels like just the other day I started out here, and now it’s the twilight of my career. But as you get older you come to enjoy it more.”

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And he is, he insists, even as the losses mount this season for the rebuilding Red Wings, who enter Tuesday’s game against Anaheim with the league’s fifth-worst record, on pace for 72 points — one shy of last year's dismal finish.

If not for Howard’s play, though, it could be worse. His 2.79 goals-against average is a function of some poor defense and the highest shot totals he’s faced in his career. (Only four teams are allowing more per game in the NHL this season.) And his .916 save percentage ranks fourth among goalies who’ve played 30 games or more this season.

“To be honest with you, I think I’m having a lot more fun now,” said Howard, who has worked diligently the last few years to adapt his game to today’s faster-paced NHL.

Simply put, his career was at a crossroads after posting pedestrian numbers in 2015-16 and ceding the No. 1 job in Detroit to Petr Mrazek. And while Jeff Salajko was promoted from Grand Rapids to be the goaltending coach in Detroit, it was Howard who took the initiative.

"It’d be an absolute honor to finish my career here. Like I’ve said, this is home," says Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, high-fiving fans while taking part in the red carpet welcome at Little Caesars Arena before the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets Oct. 4.

“I was basically flat-out asking him, ‘What do I have to do to change to stay in this league?’” Howard recalled. “When (Salajko) got the job, we sat down and talked and we put together a plan. …

“And I think it was easy to stick to the plan just because I had to make changes or I was probably going to be out of the league.”

The changes weren’t nearly as dramatic as the results, as Howard posted the best save percentage of his career in 2016-17 despite missing much of the season due to injury. In short, it’s less aggression and more patience, recognizing that by staying in his crease he’ll have a better shot at keeping his net and staying in the game into his mid-30s.

The sands of time

“The light at the end of the tunnel is definitely there now that I’m older,” said Howard, who’ll turn 35 in March and is in the final year of a six-year, $31.75 million contract extension he signed in 2013. “But I definitely want to push that as far away as possible.

“I want to play until, basically, they kick me out of here. Until they say, ‘Hey, go away.’”

He laughed, then continued, “No, obviously, I want to continue to play for as long as I can, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

And on that point, there’s a clear preference. Howard is well aware the NHL trade deadline is looming in late February and the Red Wings clearly are earmarked as sellers for a third consecutive season. Likewise, general manager Ken Holland knows he’ll have some decisions to make in the coming weeks, with a handful of pending free agents — Howard, Gustav Nyquist, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Vanek and Nick Jensen — and perhaps a few other players (Mike Green, Trevor Daley, Luke Glendening) drawing some interest around the league as well.

Just how much interest remains to be seen in what looks to be a buyer’s market. The sort of haul Holland landed from Las Vegas in the Tomas Tatar deadline deal likely won’t materialize this time around for Nyquist, though perhaps a team like Colorado or Edmonton will come calling.

And in Howard’s case, it may take more than a significant injury elsewhere to create a desperate buyer among the playoff contenders. It might take a significant offer for Holland to pull the trigger, partly because the Wings are interested in bringing him back for more.

“Obviously, it depends what I’m thinking but it also depends on what Jimmy’s thinking,” Holland told Sirius NHL Radio last week. “But certainly he has played great, so I’ve got to sit down and talk with him here as we head up toward the trade deadline.”

Sitting in front of his locker stall Monday, though, there wasn’t much ambiguity on Howard’s part. Like most players, he hears all the talk of tanking and shakes his head. The playoff are a long shot this spring, sure.

“But to be honest with you, I feel like it’s really not that far away,” he said, when asked about the way things were earlier in his career. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out. We’re in every single game. We’ve just got to find a way to write better endings, I guess you could say.”

As for writing his own ending?

“With the trade deadline coming up here, it’s pretty much wait-and-see," Howard said. "There’s always a chance, I guess. I’ve been through this a couple times. But you just can’t think about it, until it actually happens.

“It’d be an absolute honor to finish my career here. Like I’ve said, this is home. This is where the kids were born, and I feel like I belong here, and so does my wife. So this is the place where we want to be and there’s really no other place we really want to go.”

Other than the beach, that is.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo