Back in December, a late-night radio host was telling a caller that modern-day goaltending in the NHL largely was "average" compared to the "old" days, when Patrick Roy was in his prime.
His theory was that a lot of teams now put more stock into beefing up their defense corps and learn to tolerate "so-so" goaltending -- especially if they're well-stocked up front with offensive talent. It wasn't a bad observation, because that is precisely what a number of teams appear to be doing.
It's just that one of the examples he used was Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, who, aside from a couple of rough starts, has been nothing short of outstanding in his third full season as a starter.
"Look at Jimmy Howard over there in Detroit," the host said. "He's even got a mediocre name."
It was a good one-liner, perfect for a chuckle -- but that's about it. If Howard had the "mediocre" stats or "mediocre" skills to match, it might've been more accurate.
The 27-year-old Howard has earned his first All-Star Game invitation this season -- despite not being included on the official ballot -- for a pretty basic reason. Thus far, he's having an "elite" kind of season -- aside from Wednesday, when he allowed four goals on 12 shots and was pulled after one period in a 7-2 loss to the Canadiens.
Some probably still view him as "mediocre," or "a little better than average," but nobody wearing a winged wheel on their chest feels that way.
"He's played great for us," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said recently. "He was really great for us last year, but this year he seems to have taken it to another level. He gives us a chance to win every night. He's coming up with huge saves. You can't ask for any more out of a goalie. He's one of the best in the League."
The statistics bear it out.
Despite that stinker in Montreal, Howard leads the NHL at the All-Star break with 30 wins. He also has a strong 2.03 goals-against average to go with an impressive .924 save percentage.
He's started 42 games, including a stretch of 17 in a row from Oct. 28 to Dec. 2, and went 11-5-1 in that span -- winning the last seven contests in a row.
"The confidence is there, the comfortability, and I'm being more patient," Howard said, when asked what's changed from last season, when he finished with a 2.79 GAA and .908 save percentage. "You don't see me diving all over the crease out there like a spider monkey … like
before, taking myself out of position. I try to just play the one puck."
He's also letting goals that do get past him roll off his back a little quicker, narrowing his focus to stopping the next shot or opposing rush up the ice. After a season in which he appeared to suffer from the dreaded "sophomore slump," Howard put it all together at just the right time -- the postseason.
2012 NHL ALL-STAR GAME
Pominville excited to be among All-Stars
By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer Sabres forward Jason Pominville said the part of All-Star Weekend he's looking forward to the most is getting to meet his fellow All-Stars. READ MORE ›
Howard's stats improved noticeably in two playoff series, against the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks -- who ultimately ended the Wings' run for the second straight year in the Western Conference semifinals.
Last year it took seven games -- and backed by Howard's resolve in net, the Wings nearly clawed their way out of a 3-0 series deficit to advance. From then until now, Howard has continued to improve.
He learned from it, just like he's learned from every step along a patience-trying journey through Detroit's system. Now, here he is about to represent the Red Wings at this weekend's All-Star
festivities at Ottawa's Scotiabank Place.
After being taken by Detroit in the second round of the 2003 Entry Draft (No. 64) and playing three seasons for the University of Maine, Howard left following the 2004-05 season. The next season, he joined the Wings' American Hockey League team, the Grand Rapids Griffins. He played four seasons there while learning the craft of playing goalie professionally.
Howard got a couple of tastes of the NHL during his stint in Grand Rapids, but didn't become a full-time Red Wing until the 2009-10 season, when he went 37-15-10 with a 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage. He'll disagree with you, probably pretty strongly, if you suggest that it might've been a mistake to keep him in the AHL so long.
"I can't really disagree with the format," Howard said. "Of course it's frustrating at the time. You see around the American Hockey League other guys getting called up and you think you're just as good, if not better. It does weigh on your mind a little bit, but at the same time you've got to continue to work hard and take care of yourself and continue to learn and become a professional down there. I'm very thankful that they waited on me and let me progress at my own rate. It worked out for us."
In fact, it couldn't have worked out much better.
Howard not only ascended to the top spot with the Wings in 2009-10, but also got two seasons of sitting next to now-retired Wings goalie Chris Osgood in the locker room. The young backstop was enamored about it and continually learned the trade at the NHL level from a stalwart who last season became just the 10th goalie in NHL history to win 400 games.
Even though his second season didn't go quite a well as his rookie season -- at least statistically speaking -- it helped lay the groundwork for the more polished product currently on display. Howard also credits his becoming a father for the first time earlier this season for helping him see the big picture in life more clearly.
That new outlook, he said, translates to hockey.
"Nothing really surprises me anymore," Howard said. "I've seen a lot of things here in the first 2 1/2 years. Now that I'm in my third year, I just feel like I can do a lot more and come up with a lot more saves for the guys."
He's putting his money where his mouth is, too -- which is a good thing, since Detroit gave him a contract extension last season despite his struggles. Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and the rest of the Detroit brain trust put their faith in him, and Howard's teammates now do that on a nightly basis.
"He's so comfortable in net and calm," Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg said. "It helps us to play better. We know he will be there for us. He will win games for us even if we're not playing at our top level. We know we have a chance at winning."
Those kinds of things aren't said about "average" goalies very often, especially by players of Zetterberg's ilk. Yet, on most nights after games, if you walk into the Red Wings' locker room and just listen to the comments, you'll usually hear Howard's teammates mention his name at least once or twice in glowing fashion.
Elite goalies are the ones who are capable of making the highlight-reel saves, which Howard has shown he can do on more than one occasion. But they're also the ones who are consistent in their demeanor, positioning and just sheer will to keep that little rubber disc out of the net behind them.
Howard has all of those attributes -- plus a temper.
Opposing players are finding out more often that Howard isn't just going to stand pat and play the role of bowling pin. You run him, you also run the risk of getting a face full of catching glove or blocker, as St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo learned in a scrum near the end of Detroit's 3-1 win against the Blues on Monday.
"He plays with a lot of emotions," Zetterberg said. "When it heats up like that, he's so focused in the game that when someone punches him, he'll punch back. I'm glad he has a lot of padding on him. I'd rather see other guys standing up for him, but sometimes we don't have enough time to get in there. He'll go in there first."
Howard has gotten into two goalmouth tussles against the Blues this season, and also got some publicity in 2010 for going after Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby and giving him a facewash with his catching glove after Crosby had roughed up Zetterberg in front of the net.
The video replay of it prompted a lot of YouTube hits online, while legendary TV broadcaster Mike Emrick quipped from the press box: "In a city that loves its fighting goaltenders … Jimmy Howard just made the list."
He's also made more than a few believers in Motown over these two-plus seasons as the Wings' unquestioned starter -- to the point that Detroit FM rock radio station 101.1 WRIF started a campaign to draw All-Star votes for Howard. The station even went so far as to deck out a recreational vehicle and have the DJ whose idea it was drive around Detroit and broadcast from the RV.
That's how much they love the guy with the "mediocre name" in Detroit right now.
"To be honest, my numbers last year probably didn't really warrant being on there," Howard said of the ballot snub. "We outscored a lot of teams last year to be able to get wins, and this year, after the playoffs I had, I felt like I could take on more of a role of being a difference-maker. I'm just playing with a lot of confidence. (The All Star Game) is a great honor. I'm really looking forward to representing this organization and the NHL in Ottawa."