After signing Ty Conklin
to a one-year contract earlier this month, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland quickly called his 24-year-old goaltending project, Jimmy Howard
“He called to say he didn’t want my spirits to go down because of the signing,” Howard told NHL.com. “He was basically telling me to come into camp and really push for that job and to try to win it.”
With or without Conklin on the roster, Howard figured he was going to have to win the job as Chris Osgood’s backup in Detroit anyway. The expected competition with Conklin only serves as motivation for him this summer.
“I didn’t think at all that they were going to just pencil me into the spot since I have just played eight NHL games,” said Howard, who is 1-4 with a 2.56 goals-against average in his brief NHL career. “It makes me push that much harder this summer knowing he’s there.”
Howard, who is training this summer at the University of Maine -- where he became one of the top goaltending prospects on the planet earlier this decade -- believes he’s NHL-ready after spending the past three seasons in the AHL.
The Red Wings do, too.
In fact, don’t be surprised if Holland secretly hopes Howard beats out Conklin. But assistant general manager Jim Nill was also quick to note that the Wings have some flexibility with Howard because they can still send him to the minors.
“Jimmy is right where we want him to be,” Nill told NHL.com. “A lot of people looked at the Ty Conklin signing as us saying Jimmy is not ready. It’s not the case. We had to protect ourselves.”
When Dominik Hasek announced his retirement last month, the Wings' depth chart in net got strikingly shallow. Howard moved up to No. 2, but No. 3 was Daniel Larsson, a 22-year-old Swedish prospect who has never played a game in North America.
They couldn’t enter the 2008-09 season with such a serious lack of depth at arguably the sport’s most important position.
“The concern was if Chris Osgood or Jimmy got hurt, what’s our next option?” Nill said. “That’s why we signed Ty. Chris is the No. 1 goalie and we’re going to let Conklin and Howard fight it out for the No. 2 spot.”
Not surprisingly, the AHL is the last thing on Howard’s mind. He doesn’t want to go back to Grand Rapids, nor does he anticipate it.
“Every single day I go out there in training camp, I have to continue to prove myself, to show them that I have progressed, that I have been working hard in the summer, and that I want to be in the NHL,” Howard said. “That’s what they want me to do when I come to camp. They want me to show them that I belong.”
And if he still starts the season in Grand Rapids?
“Then I know I haven’t played to my potential in training camp,” he said. “I’m going into camp thinking I have to make that decision so hard for Kenny, Jim and Babs (coach Mike Babcock) that they have don’t have a choice but to keep me.”
To convince them, Howard has to continue to show the consistency that made him an AHL All-Star this past season.
“When Jimmy is at his high level, he’s as good as anyone in the NHL,” Nill said. “It’s just a matter of staying there.”
Howard stayed there in 2007-08. Even though he finished with a 21-28-2 record for the Griffins, who were 13th in the AHL’s Western Conference, Howard’s GAA (2.83) and save percentage (.907) spoke to his consistency.
“He was the top AHL rookie goalie (in 2005-06), but then he struggled,” Holland told NHL.com. “He came back this year and wound up playing in the AHL All-Star Game and was the AHL Goalie of the Month in December. Being a good pro is about being a good player for a long stretch of time. It’s not about having a good weekend.”
Holland said the difference between Howard in 2005 and Howard now is his playing weight. He has dropped between 15 and 20 pounds since his rookie year, and the weight loss has given him more freedom to move laterally in the net.
“Losing the weight has made a huge difference, but the one spot where it’s been most effective is later on in the year when I’m still fresh,” said Howard, who at 6-foot-1 already covers a lot of the net. “Not carrying that extra weight is easier on the body.”
Nill believes the weight loss and consistency prove Howard has learned how to be a pro.
“He played at Maine and was skilled enough to just play down there without worrying,” Nill said. “At the next level, it was a matter of conditioning and playing three or four games in a row without a week off to recover. It was learning to become a pro and he has really done a great job of bringing his career along.”
But is he ready to make the big jump?
Howard thinks he is. He’ll have all of training camp to make believers out of Holland, Nill, Babcock and perhaps even Conklin, too.
“We have the flexibility to send Jimmy down,” Nill said. “We have to decide if it would be better to have him on the bench and not playing much, or down in the minors and playing a lot, coming up for a game here and there, and going back down.”