Is Detroit Red Wings' Jimmy Howard a Top-Tier Goaltender?

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2013

The Detroit Red Wings have been the NHL's best team over the last 20 years. During that span, though, their goaltenders have rarely received credit for the club's elite-level status.

That includes current goaltender Jimmy Howard, who backstopped the Wings to a first-round victory over the Anaheim Ducks and nearly led them to an upset over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals in 2013.

The second round of the playoffs hasn't been kind to Howard. He has never gotten past that barrier, and that may be one of the reasons he is not thought of as being in the same class with the game's elite.

Most will mention Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators and Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins as the best goaltenders in the NHL.

Howard does not get consideration, but he has numbers that back him up.

Howard has played in 234 games since being called up to the Red Wings in 2005-06. He started to play regularly in 2009-10 and has held on to that job since then. He has a career .918 save percentage, which is better than all but four goalies in the NHL who have played in at least 100 regular-season games.

The only netminders who have a better save percentage are Rask (.927), Lundqvist (.920), Rinne (.920) and Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks (.919).

Howard's career stat line also includes a 2.36 goals-against average and 16 regular-season shutouts.

A goaltender may prove himself valuable with his regular-season work, but his true reputation gets established with his play in the postseason. The steady Howard does just as well from the perspective of save percentage, as he has a mark of .918. He also sports a playoff GAA of 2.57 and two shutouts.

While the Red Wings could not get past the eventual Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks last season, they were able to build a 3-1 series lead that was based largely on Howard's stellar work.

NBC analyst Ed Olczyk told me that Howard's performance in the early part of the series was exceptional and the Wings would never have been able to extend Chicago to seven games without him.

"I saw a goaltender who did his job very well and played with a lot of confidence," Olczyk said. "He made the key save time after time and that's all you can ask from a goaltender. He knows how to focus and concentrate and he is a steady performer."

Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said his team had to lean on Howard last year more than it ever had, and his goaltender came through in stellar fashion.

The Red Wings had lost superstar defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement, and that placed more of a burden on the goaltending position than Babcock had ever seen in his run with Detroit. He told The New York Times ' Joanne C. Gerstner that Howard flies under the radar because he is dependable.

“From the time I came here until now, we need good goaltending now more than we ever did,” Babcock said. 

“And he’s providing it for us; he’s strong and competitive in there. You only talk about your goaltending when it’s no good. Probably should talk about him more, because it is good.”

When you play goalie in Detroit, it doesn't matter what your regular-season numbers look like, how many shutouts you have or whether you have been to the All-Star Game. The only thing that matters is winning the Stanley Cup.

In Detroit, Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek have done that recently and are remembered as heroes.

Nobody is going to say that Howard belongs in a class with Hasek (.920 SV%, 2.20 GAA, 81 SO), because the Dominator may have been the best goalie the game has ever seen.

However, Howard's numbers are superior to those of both Vernon (.890 SV%, 2.98 GAA, 29 SO) and Osgood (.905 SV%, 2.49 GAA, 50 SO).

Howard says that a goaltender's mental state is vital to his performance and he found a way to stay in the moment so he wouldn't be overwhelmed with the job he had in front of him.

"I'm just being calm," Howard told Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune. "I'm not trying to overdo anything out there. It sounds pretty basic, but that's what we work on every single day."

Perhaps Howard will have a chance to raise his profile this year. Since the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference, he will be facing teams like the Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins on a regular basis.

He will have a chance to impress Original Six media, coaches and some of the league's best sharpshootersand do it in prime time.

While in the Western Conference, Howard and the Red Wings were forced to play a high percentage of late-night, West Coast games that many coaches, players and media members did not see.

If he can continue to have the same kind of success against this relatively new competition, it could go a long way toward helping him establish a reputation as one of the best goalies in the league.

He is also among those goalies who have a shot at playing for the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

He is battling Quick, Buffalo's Ryan Miller, Ottawa's Craig Anderson, New Jersey's Cory Schneider and Anaheim prospect John Gibson for a spot on the roster. 

"You just have go out there and you take care of business for your own team, and you just make it tough on the advisory staff," Howard told Helene St. James of USA Today. "Every goalie that can possibly make those three positions are top-notch goalies, and it's going to be very tough to pick the three."

If he can overcome those odds and thrive in the Eastern Conference, there's little doubt that Howard will be among the NHL's elite goaltenders.


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