For a team long associated with some of the NHL's greatest skaters, the Detroit Red Wings' 2012-13 season may have been their year of the goaltender.
Jimmy Howard established himself as a franchise goalie before signing a six-year contract extension worth $31.8 million. The team's top prospect at the position, Petr Mrazek, had a standout first pro season, appearing in his first NHL game and leading the American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids to a Calder Cup championship.
With Mrazek looking to make the jump to the NHL this season, the potential for tension could be high. But the goaltenders instead have become good friends.
"He's a great kid," Howard told NHL.com. "He has a quiet confidence. He doesn't say much. Nothing really fazes him. He just goes out there and plays.
"That's great to see from such a young guy (21). I'm looking forward down the road to being partners with him."
Partners? Considering there are 30 starting goaltending jobs in the NHL, Howard would hardly be blamed for taking a more cutthroat approach to the young Czech who could be trying to take his job in the next few seasons. But rather than look to stifle the development of Mrazek, who was an AHL All-Star last season, Howard, 29, has taken an interest in the prospect.
When Mrazek was called up by the Red Wings in February, Howard volunteered to take care of the rookie. Their relationship only furthered Mrazek's development.
"I was living in his house for a few days last year. He is a great guy," Mrazek said. "We have fun together. That's important for both goalies.
"When I was in Detroit last year, I was on the bench and he was playing games. I was watching him, how he is off the ice, on the ice. In practice he works extremely hard. So that opened my eyes and showed me how to work."
Howard's 21 wins last season tied for seventh in the League, and Mrazek didn't look out of place during his short stint with Detroit. In his first NHL start, he stopped 26 of 27 shots (including all 23 shots at even strength) to earn a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 7. In his next start 10 days later, he allowed three goals in just over four minutes in a 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild and was sent back to Grand Rapids the next day.
Mrazek struggled at times down the stretch with the Griffins, going 7-9-1. But he was a standout in the postseason, at one point making 77 saves in back-to-back shutouts against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Final.
With a Calder Cup title to go along with his breakout performance at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship, where he was selected the top goaltender, Mrazek is ready to push Howard in training camp.
"I want to make the next step. I was in Grand Rapids the first year and we won the Calder Cup. So I hope I can make it to the next step," Mrazek said. "I know [Howard] got the big contract, he is the No. 1. But I want to go step by step, I want to make the team, and he will show me how to work on the ice, off the ice. I hope I will get more games this year and show Detroit I can play every game."
To a bystander, those might sound like fighting words. But Howard has no intention of suppressing his competition. If anything, he wants to see Mrazek succeed as much as anyone and has every intention of mentoring him again this season.
"First and foremost, you're teammates. You want the best for both of us," Howard said. "It's one of those things where you lean on each other but you push each other at the same time. He's coming along really well. He's going to continue to improve."
And if Mrazek ends up making the Red Wings out of training camp, he'll still have a place to live in Detroit if he needs it.
"I barely knew he was around the house when he was there. He was quiet," Howard said. "He's a great young kid."
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