Jimmy Howard finished last season as the Detroit Red Wings' backup goaltender after losing the No. 1 job to Petr Mrazek. He realized during the summer that if he didn't consider changes, he might fall further.
When Howard, who not long ago was in the conversation as one of the most aggressive goalies in the NHL, took a step back and examined his game, he decided to also take a step (or two) back into his crease. Three months after buying into those changes and six weeks into the season, Howard is reaping the benefits, including a 1.76 goals-against average, sixth best in the League, and a .943 save percentage, which is fifth in the League. .
"It was just me saying, 'OK if I want to continue to play, not only in Detroit but in the National Hockey League, then I need to change,'" Howard said. "I wanted to play again, to be out there every night in the crease, so I took a look in the mirror and said, 'This game is evolving; it's getting really, really fast, so I need to change and put myself in better spots to not only make one save, but make a second and a third if necessary,' and one thing was just being a little bit less aggressive in the net."
There have been other changes, including a renewed focus on post play, but the biggest difference in Howard going from a career-worst .906 save percentage last season and .909 during the past three seasons, starts with playing inside his crease. He will still venture beyond the edges of the blue paint against some rush chances; however, when play is in the Detroit end, he now works almost exclusively with his toes inside the edge of his crease.
Video: CGY@DET: Howard stops a wide-open shot from in front
"I still come out but not nearly as far as I used to, like super aggressive," Howard said. "It's allowing me to go from one dot to the other inside of the crease and get there and have my feet set so I'm ready for the shot."
If that seems like a small change, don't underestimate how hard it was for Howard to make it as 32-year-old who had done it differently for 11 pro seasons, or how much it impacts other areas of his game.
"To be honest, it wasn't that easy a transition, especially when we got into [preseason games] and I felt like they had too much net to shoot at," Howard said. "It was more a mental block to get through more so than ability. It's hard to sit back and let the play come to you, especially when you're not 6-foot-3 or bigger like lot of these guys in the League.
"Being just under 6-foot-1, I felt at first like I was giving up too much net and guys were just going to pick me apart. But then in practice I got more and more comfortable, and then in the [preseason] games I noticed that not only did I have more time to get from point A to point B, but I was able to read plays better."
Watch Howard now and you'll actually see him make saves standing up, negating his relative lack of height by not dropping to his knees prematurely. That's another advantage of playing deeper.
Video: DET@MTL: Howard reacts well to deny a rush of shots
"I feel like that extra split-second you have to read, to calculate all that information, allows me to better process everything," he said. "I'm able to read shots off sticks more -- or passes."
The wins haven't come yet for Howard, who is 5-5-0 in part because the Red Wings have scored 17 goals in his 10 starts, including a pair of 1-0 losses. Given the inherent ups and downs associated with the position, some will undoubtedly point to this as a hot streak and the larger sample size that preceded it as a more likely endpoint. But that might be ignoring the fact he looks like a totally different goalie now.
By using shorter movements from deeper positioning to beat passes and get set sooner, Howard is more in control, with time to shift into shots rather than dropping and reaching, which has led to fewer rebounds and scrambles.
"He's made more saves this year with his body just by being there and set as opposed to before where he made a lot of highlight reel saves," said Jeff Salajko, in his first season as the Red Wings goalie coach after three as the goaltending development coach for Grand Rapids, their American Hockey League affiliate. "He could make those highlight saves, no doubt about it, because he's got elite hands and he's an athlete. But you don't need to."
Video: VAN@DET: Howard makes strong pair of pad saves
During the summer, Howard tinkered with the idea of playing deeper on his own, but said it was cemented during the Network Goaltending camp in Madison, Wisconsin, in late August. He watched 6-foot-2 Jake Allen, the St. Louis Blues' No. 1 goaltender, and noticed how his depth management allowed Allen to beat plays and always "have his feet set under him while making plays."
Howard continued that focus with Salajko, who was also at the Network camp. Each credits the exceptional footwork instilled by former Red Wings goalie coach Jim Bedard for making the transition easier.
It was simply a matter of starting those movements from further back.
"I was still making lots of saves," Howard said, "so I was like, 'Let's work a little smarter here and not harder and play a little less aggressive and see how it works out.'
"So far it has."