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Howard back to all-star form for Red Wings

Goalie who regained No. 1 job savors second chance to represent Detroit

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DETROIT -- Jimmy Howard will represent the Detroit Red Wings at the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center in San Jose on Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Which is remarkable, considering the 34-year-old goaltender wasn't sure how much longer he would represent the Red Wings, period.

Or any NHL team.

"I didn't know how much time I had left in this league," Howard said.

His story is about hard work and perseverance, and it serves as an example of what the Red Wings want as they go through a rebuild.

 

[RELATED: Howard hopes to end career with Red Wings | Full All-Star coverage]

 

Compete. Perform. And you will be rewarded.

Howard never has been handed anything since the Red Wings selected him in the second round (No. 64) of the 2003 NHL Draft. After three years at the University of Maine, he spent four with Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League, popping up for nine NHL games from 2005-09.

The Red Wings were Stanley Cup contenders then, winning the Cup in 2008 and going to Game 7 of the Final in 2009. They were going with the likes of Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood, not a rookie.

When Howard took over in 2009-10, he was 25 years old. He was the runner-up to Buffalo Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and eighth in the voting for the Vezina Trophy as the League's best goaltender.

Howard has been a top-10 goaltender when healthy and at his best. He went to the 2012 NHL All-Star Game in Ottawa and finished sixth in voting for the Vezina in 2012-13. He was selected for the 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus.

But he has battled injuries and had to battle for his job. The same day he was selected for the 2015 All-Star Game he sustained a groin injury and never made it to Columbus. When he came back a month later he wasn't the same. He had a .920 save percentage before the injury and .896 afterward and lost the net to up-and-coming Petr Mrazek during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In 2015-16 he played 37 games and had a .906 save percentage; Mrazek played 54 games with a .921.

"As Petr Mrazek was in the process of taking over the No. 1 job, I just talked to Jimmy one offseason about, 'You're being challenged. You're being challenged as an athlete, and you have to decide what you want to do about it,'" Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said. "To his credit, he's dug in."

Video: MTL@DET: Howard denies Drouin's backhand in close

Howard worked with goaltending coach Jeff Salajko, who was promoted from Grand Rapids to Detroit in 2016, a year after Jeff Blashill took over as coach. Under coach Mike Babcock, Howard was asked to be aggressive and make saves outside the crease. Working with Salajko and Blashill, he backed up, giving him more time to read plays and shots, putting him in better position to absorb rebounds and make secondary saves. 

"It definitely wasn't anything overnight," Howard said. "It took some hard work in the summertime of us collaborating on what I needed to do out on the ice to be successful going into training camp that year. I was willing to change too. I felt like I had a lot more left in the tank and I wanted to keep playing."

In 2016-17, Howard had a .927 save percentage in 26 games. Mrazek had a .901 in 50. The Red Wings exposed Mrazek in the NHL Expansion Draft even though he was eight years younger.

Last season, Howard played 34 of the first 40 games and had a .916 save percentage, while Mrazek had an .892 save percentage in 11 games. Mrazek was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 19. Mrazek was a pending restricted free agent and Holland didn't want to make him a $4 million qualifying offer to retain his rights.

"[Howard] won the job back by his play on the ice," Holland said. "That's what you try to tell all the young players in the organization. All you can do is take care of yourself. Don't worry about managing the team. Don't worry about coaching the team. He just worried about himself, worried about fine-tuning his game, and he plays consistently night after night after night after night after night. And I think it's a credit to him."

The Red Wings have given Howard little margin for error (scoring 2.76 goals per game, 24th in the NHL) and lots of work (allowing 33.8 shots per game, fifth most). Still, he is 11-12-5 with a 2.79 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage. Among goaltenders who have played at least 30 games, his save percentage ranks fourth.

"For a little bit there I don't know if anyone knew really if [Howard] was going to be the No. 1 or if Petr was going to be the No. 1," defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "He just went to work. He took the starting job back and he's been rock solid for us all year. I'm extremely happy for him that he got the (All-Star Game) nod."

The first time Howard went to an All-Star Game, he and his wife, Rachel, had a newborn son, James. Now James is 7, and they have a 4-year-old son, Henry, and an 8-month-old daughter, Olivia, too. James and Henry are old enough to appreciate Dad's job, and they're going to San Jose. Howard looks forward to this All-Star Game mostly for them, so they can see players like Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers.

"I've been through a lot in my career, and I've overcome a lot," Howard said. "For me right now, it's just about just enjoying myself down here at the rink and having a lot of fun."

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