With the Detroit Red Wings, the expectations are to compete for the Stanley Cup every season, and it's no secret that doing so requires a goalie who warms up along with the weather each spring.
The Red Wings have managed a remarkable feat in winning four championships over the past 17 years with a revolving door in net, claiming the Cup in 1997 with Mike Vernon, repeating in 1998 with Chris Osgood, taking a third title in 2002 with Dominik Hasek, and ascending to the top again in 2008 with Osgood.
Winning the Stanley Cup four times in relatively short time is always an impressive feat, but doing so with multiple goaltenders is particularly difficult. Detroit's crease has traditionally been home to a quality player, but it hasn't always been home to stability.
General manager Ken Holland is hoping that will no longer be the case after signing Jimmy Howard to a six-year, $31.8 million contract extension this spring. Howard has been the Red Wings' starting goalie since 2009-10 and has put up solid numbers each season since, but in 2012-13 he was superb, posting a 2.13 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
His extension takes away what could have been a significant question mark this season and beyond, something Holland didn't shy away from when the transaction was announced.
"Not only do I think he's a really good goaltender, for our organization, it's stability," Holland said at the time. "It's a really, really important position. We've got a player that wants to be here, that's grown up through our system, has gotten better every year."
The importance of that stability became all the more obvious in 2012-13, when Detroit spent much of the season struggling to stay in playoff position in the competitive Western Conference.
As his numbers reveal, Howard's play was not the problem. Detroit struggled to score relative to other years, a fact the team acknowledged with its offseason signings of forwards Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson. The Red Wings averaged 2.54 goals per game last season, the second straight year in which their scoring has declined and by far their lowest output since Howard became the starter.
Those kinds of deficiencies make solid play at the back end imperative, and with the days of Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski a thing of the past, the Red Wings are thinner and younger on the blue line than they've been in years. All of this spells out how important it is for Howard to continue his stellar play from last season and provide the Red Wings the stability they've lacked in net throughout their run.
Detroit is expecting Weiss and Alfredsson, or perhaps emerging Gustav Nyquist, to address its offensive issues, but if those additions don't boost scoring as expected, Howard’s performance will ultimately determine the Red Wings’ fate.
The Red Wings do have firepower to spare in their top six and are talented enough to compete for the Atlantic Division crown. Are they a team that can roll four lines for seven games against prohibitive Cup favorites, the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins or Los Angeles Kings? Should the answer come in the negative, a top-flight goalie who can steal games or maybe even a playoff series is a necessity.
Howard showed last season he can be that type of goaltender. In Games 3 and 4 of Detroit's Western Conference Semifinal series against Chicago, he stopped 67 of 68 shots to put the Presidents' Trophy winners, who had swept Detroit in the regular season, on the brink of elimination.
Even as the Red Wings' season ended in an overtime loss in Game 7, Howard was sharp, stopping 33 of 35 shots. If the Red Wings reach the late stages of the playoffs this season, the pressure will be on him to do it again.
They will only go as far as Howard takes them.
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