A great deal has been made about “the kids” who currently comprise the Red Wings’ roster, and rightfully so. Luke Glendening, Riley Sheahan, and Tomas Jurco have all played much larger roles than anyone anticipated, and over a third of the season remains. Tomas Tatar is tied for third on the team in goals (13) despite being a healthy scratch for eight of the team’s first nine games. Danny DeKeyser continues to develop as a steady presence on the blue line, and Gustav Nyquist was recently awarded both the NHL’s Second Star of the Week and a spot on Sweden’s extremely talented Olympic roster. With the Wings’ roster ravaged by injuries yet again, players previously believed to represent the team’s future have become its present. An area of the team’s future that has thus far received less attention is goaltending, but it may come to the forefront sooner than you expect.
While a small but vocal minority of the Detroit faithful has long disdained Jimmy Howard, statistically speaking he is an under-appreciated, if not elite NHL goaltender. Howard has finished in the top ten in both save percentage and goals against average in three of his four years as a starter, and sports the fifth highest career save percentage of any active goalie. He is also in the first year of a reasonable six-year, $31.75 million contract. This said, it’s not surprising very little has been made of the future in net. But the Red Wings could have a goaltending conundrum on their hands as soon as next season.
There are two highly regarded goaltending prospects in the Red Wings system. The younger of the two, Jake Paterson (cool GoPro video from practice here), started the first two games in net for Team Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden before being switched out in favor of Canadiens prospect Zach Fucale. Paterson followed up his appearance at the WJC with a very strong January, posting a .928 SV% and two shutouts for a middling Saginaw Spirit squad in the Ontario Hockey League. His overall numbers aren’t eye-popping, but Hockey Prospectus prospect writer and ESPN Insider Corey Pronman likes Paterson’s frame (6’1”, 183), athletic ability, and reflexes ($). Pronman believes Paterson needs to continue to improve on his positioning and other smaller details in his game. He is also 19 and has never played a game as a professional. Paterson signed an entry-level contract with the Red Wings in September; look for him to continue his progression toward the NHL in Grand Rapids next season.
The other prized goaltending prospect in the Red Wings system is someone we have already seen a bit of with the big club. In appearing in nine games over the past year, Petr Mrazek (6’1”, 187) has more than held his own with a .923 SV% and 1.74 GAA in an admittedly small sample size. Current Red Wings backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s contract expires at the end of this season. His improved play this year has led to some speculation that he may receive offers to be a starting netminder elsewhere. I spoke with Pronman via email regarding the future of the goaltending situation and he finds such speculation farfetched. Even if Gustavsson doesn’t become a starter, he could still seek additional playing time on a team with a less established number one than Howard. Pronman is high on Mrazek, and thinks he possesses a higher ceiling than Paterson due to superior athletic skills and reflexes, as well as what he describes as more “game changing ability.” Pronman also believes it is possible we will see Mrazek in Detroit as the fulltime backup next season, despite the team’s reputation for exercising restraint with their prospects. Imagine a scenario in which Howard starts next season as sluggishly as he did this year, only to cede playing time to a 22-year-old big time prospect, rather than an established backup like Gustavsson. Mrazek will also be a restricted free agent following next season. While there is generally little action in restricted free agency, it nonetheless adds further speculation to the future of the position. The Red Wings may not want Mrazek sitting on the bench for fifty-plus games next year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Gustavsson or another veteran backup is signed for one more year. But even in that scenario, the team is one injury away from a Mrazek call-up and, theoretically, the possibility of extensive playing time. The timetable may not be clear, but one thing is … this could get awkward.