By: Will Burchfield
Five years ago, the headline at the top of this story would have drawn laughter. 10 years ago it would have drawn scorn.
But the NHL has changed dramatically over the past decade. It has become smart, by popular opinion, to rest a starting goaltender as much as possible over the course of the season.
It keeps him fresh, the thinking goes, and allows him to be at his best when the games matter most.
Last season, the Oilers’ Cam Talbot led the NHL with 73 starts. The average number of starts among the top five goalies in this department was 66.2. In 2011-12, it was 70. In 2006-07, when Martin Brodeur led the way with 78 starts (ho-hum), it was 73.4
Are goalies becoming coddled?
“I would say we probably over-worry about it a little bit,” said Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, a former netminder himself. “I don’t know why goalies can’t play back to back. Now, every goalie’s a little bit different. I think sometimes it’s an easy chance for you to get the other goalie some games, so maybe that’s just the way you do it.
“But I also think it’s overplayed a little bit. We had lots of goalies play back to back in the American League that were old enough, and those (road) trips aren’t any easier.”
Over his first two years as coach of the Wings, Blashill split starts between Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek when the two were healthy. (He was also forced to fork over a handful to Jared Coreau last year.) This wasn’t because Blashill subscribed to the thinking of the day, but because neither goalie was consistently better than the other.
Howard has separated himself this year, in a big way. And Blashill has proven he’s not shy of riding a No. 1 between the pipes.
The 33-year-old Howard, whose career-high .928 save percentage ranks third in the league, has started 16 of Detroit’s first 21 games and 11 of its past 13. He’ll be in nets again Wednesday night versus the Oilers. He’s currently riding a streak of five straight starts and he enjoyed a six-game streak last month.
He’s on pace to match his career high in starts (63), which he set in 2010-11 at the age of 25. He hasn’t started more than 57 games since then and hasn’t started more than 50 since 2011-12.
Does Howard, who was limited to 24 starts last year, have his eye on a certain number, somewhere he’d like to be at the end of the season?
“No, don’t even think about it,” he said.
Is he a goalie who plays better with a heavier workload?
“Every goalie plays better when they’re given more opportunities because you’re just going out there and playing,” he said.
Blashill said he has a target in mind for Howard, but smiled and declined to share it.
“We look long-range plans, we have to look long-range plans. But it’s also an everyday business and you have to make sure you’re winning every day. We’ve got an idea of where we want him. I just revisited (on Tuesday) with our goalie coach (Jeff Salajko) where we’d like maximums and minimums, especially maximums. All that stuff can change based on play, but we certainly have that idea,” Blashill said.
The main motive to rest a starting goalie these days is to keep him from playing on consecutive nights. The Wings have played two back-to-back sets thus far, and Howard and Mrazek have split both.
“The numbers state, for the most part, that guys aren’t as good the second night as the first night. That is for sure,” said Blashill. “Now, not every goalie’s that way and certain goalies have had great numbers on back-to-back, so you have to look at your individual guy and make that determination.”
Asked what Howard’s numbers look like, Blashill again declined to say. The Red Wings prefer to keep such information in-house.
“I’ll let you guys look that up,” he said.
Over his career, Howard has played in 32 games (31 starts) marking the second half of a back-to-back. He’s 20-9-3 with a .923 save percentage. His career save percentage is .916.
When Blashill questions why goalies can’t play on consecutive nights, he’s not talking about Howard.
It should be noted that Howard has appeared in just four such games over the past two years, with a far less impressive save percentage of .894. Still, the career numbers are convincing. There’s no reason to rest him when the schedule tightens up.
The Wings have nine more back-to-backs, five of which conclude on the road. Howard should start the majority of those games.
And he should start the large majority of the team’s games the rest of the way. There needn’t be a concern about burning him out or putting him at the risk of injury. What should concern the Wings, as Blashill has stated numerous times this year, is getting “elite” goaltending. Howard’s provided it so far.
No, he won’t approach Brodeur levels in terms of playing time. Brodeur played in at least 70 games in 12 seasons, five of which came when he was past the age of 30. (Ho-hum.)
“Well, Marty also played with a team that played a left wing lock and saw about 15 shots a night, so it’s a bit of a different age,” Howard said with a laugh. “I think, nowadays, points are so important it doesn’t matter who you have in net. You have to go out there and find ways to get points for the guys.”
Can Howard approach 65 starts this season? Barring a dip in play, absolutely. He’s a goalie who can handle the work, and Blashill sounds like a coach who’s ready to let him try.