Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Time For Red Wings' Howard To Step Up, Once And For All

Jimmy Howard is a grizzled rookie.

He's a 25-year-old goalie who's been in the Red Wings' organization for six years, and still no one really knows what we have here.

Howard has managed to find himself between the pipes for all of 556 minutes for the Red Wings since being drafted in 2003. He's 1-5 with a GAA of 2.76 and a save pct. of .896.

He's shown flashes in the minor leagues since being snatched off the board after a fine career at the University of Maine. But he's also confounded some of the scouts and minor league coaches, causing them to look cross-eyed at Howard, befuddled as to why he's not further along in his development.

His numbers in Grand Rapids have been more pedestrian than splendid. Howard, last season, posted a 2.54 GAA and a .916 save pct. And there were those in the organization who were concerned about midway thru the season that Howard had possibly regressed since turning pro.

Yet Howard has the inside track at being Chris Osgood's backup in 2009-10, because Ty Conklin fled to St. Louis as a free agent.

That leaves the Red Wings with Osgood, who'll be 37 in November, and Howard as the goaltending tandem, barring any additional moves.

Osgood (left) might have to play an inordinate amount of games next season if Howard (right) doesn't get his act together

Osgood, before the Stanley Cup Finals began in late May, promised that he would "never" have a regular season like the one he had in '08-'09, when he was mostly awful. Some of that awfulness, he explained, was due to a distinct lack of mental preparation prior to last season.

He says he's learned from that, proving that even being in the NHL for 15 years doesn't mean you're immune from being schooled.

But unless the Red Wings feel a lot more warm and fuzzy about Howard after training camp, they may be forced to play Osgood in 55-60 games, or more. That would be easily the most games Osgood has participated in since 2003-04, when he appeared in 67 contests for the St. Louis Blues.

Osgood, over the past four seasons, has played in 142 games. He was Manny Legace's backup in 2005-06, then backed up Dominik Hasek for the next two seasons. Even last year, going into the season as the clear cut No. 1 guy, Osgood only played in 46 games, because of his below-par performance.

So what would a 60-game workload do to a 37-year-old Osgood? Would that impact him negatively in the playoffs?

And why am I worrying about this in July?

It's never too early, or never the off-season, to wring your hands about NHL goaltending. It's the lifeblood of any championship team. As good as Osgood was in the 2009 playoffs---and he was excellent---Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury was a tad better as the Finals series wore on, Game 5's anomaly aside.

This is it for Jimmy Howard. This is his litmus test, the 2009-10 season.

If he's not up to the task now, forget it. He'll be 26 before next season ends, and he'll have been a professional for about six years. The Red Wings have waited long enough.

To be fair, Howard has found playing time at the NHL level to be elusive, with the Red Wings' goal log-jammed with Legace, Hasek, Osgood, and Conklin over the years. But that's what the minor leagues are for, and Jimmy Howard hasn't caused a lot of folks to write home about his play.

I run the risk of sounding like a typical Nervous Nellie Red Wings fan, but with the team being shredded up front thanks to free agency losses, preventing goals becomes more important than ever. The Red Wings' blue line corps is as good as it gets, especially the top four, so there's that.

But it still comes down to goaltending. And the Red Wings will go to battle with a 37-year-old starter and a 25-year-old who can't seem to decide whether to pee or get off the pot, so to speak.

Sorry to dampen your summer's fun.

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