Yes, I’m aware that the Detroit Red Wings have not played a single game in the Atlantic Division. Yes, I’m quite aware that they’ve just moved to the Eastern Conference. And, yes, I’m fully cognizant of the fact that Tuukka Rask had an outstanding 2012-13 season with the Boston Bruins.
I know this.
However, I do believe that the Red Wings’ Atlantic Division counterparts will soon realize that one particular new kid on the block is going to give all of his fellow netminders a run for their money this season.
Jimmy Howard is the best goalie in the division.
Now, before all you Ottawa, Boston and maybe even Montreal fans start throwing epithets and profanity-laced rants my way, give me a chance to explain why this assertion is not mere fanboy-ism getting the better of me.
As the Red Wings are new to the East, it stands to reason that longtime conference fans and observers might not know much about Howard—save for the fact that he plays for the Detroit Red Wings and therefore does not have to be very good in net.
At least, that’s been the prevailing wisdom (and I use that term loosely) over the past couple of decades or so.
For example, you might throw out some Chris Osgood jabs of the “worst goalie to ever win a Cup” variety.
While I think that assessment is completely unfair, I won’t spend time defending Ozzie now.
It’s true. When Osgood was in the Detroit net, he had legendary players in front of him. Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Nicklas Lidstrom, Igor Larionov and Larry Murphy, to name a few.
Still, it’s possible that, as the Red Wings have been living in the Western Conference throughout all their recent Cup-winning years, their new friends—or foes—in the East may have nostalgic or skewed notions of what kind of team just jumped over the fence.
Allow me to clarify that the team that Howard has backstopped since the 2009-10 season does not resemble the championship teams of yesteryear.
While the Red Wings have had all-world talent in Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and, until last season, Lidstrom during that stretch, that’s hardly made Howard’s job in net a cakewalk.
Howard first grabbed the net full-time during the 2009-10 season.
A Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Final the year before seemed to have taken a sizable toll on the Red Wings. For much of the season, they looked tired, deflated and disinterested.
On top of that, that particular season marked the beginning of what would become an annual rash of injuries up and down the lineup.
On many nights, the team was closer to the Grand Rapids Griffins (the Red Wings' AHL affiliate) than the Detroit Red Wings.
Despite all of the adversity the Wings faced that season, they still managed a fifth-place finish and 44-24-14 record.
Howard played his first year in Detroit as the undisputed No. 1 goalie behind a battered, broken and crestfallen team, and he ended his season going 37-15-10 with a 2.26 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and three shutouts.
Without Howard, the Wings miss the playoffs in 2009-10. Period.
Why this history lesson on Howard's exploits dating back to three seasons ago?
The answer is simple: This history has been repeating itself every season since.
Since 2009-10, the Red Wings have dealt with an ever-changing lineup of top-talent superstars, aging veterans trying to give it one last go and young players trying to find their way in the NHL.
Despite their offensive potential in the past three seasons, the Red Wings have gone through long scoring slumps, powerless power plays and do-nothing line combinations.
Added to that, they’ve suffered through plagues of injuries in each of the past three seasons, the likes of which most teams could never reasonably expect to recover from—let alone overcome to make the postseason.
Despite the shifting sands in Detroit over the past three seasons, the team has remained not only competitive, but successful in extending its playoff streak to a record 22 straight seasons.
While hockey is nothing if not a team sport and a team’s success is achieved collectively, it is Howard that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Detroit’s recent success.
Reasonable people can disagree on what it means to be the best goalie in a select group of peers, but how consistently a goalie can win games for his team when it needs to win them is as good a measure as any.
Howard has won 130 games for the Red Wings in the past three years, which is more than any other Atlantic Division goalie.
Speaking of which, let’s take a quick look at who rounds out that cast.
Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and Boston’s Rask are outstanding goalies in their own right, but they have not been shouldering the load for their teams over the past three seasons. Their ability to do so, though not in doubt, is far from established.
Carey Price and Ryan Miller have at times been considered among the best goalies in the league, let alone their divisions. But those times are gone—at least for now.
James Reimer could very well be the real deal in Toronto. Then again, so could Jonathan Bernier. They'll need the season to decide which Leaf has the net.
Anders Lindback is supposed to be Tampa Bay’s No. 1 goalie, and if he can actually win more games than his backup, Ben Bishop, maybe he will be.
Florida has Tim Thomas, who is 39 years old and has not played an NHL game in over a year.
At 29, Jimmy Howard is entering his prime and has established a level of consistency that has not been seen in Detroit’s net since Dominik Hasek (that is, the 2001-02 version).
Howard will lead his team, be it bruised, broken or snakebitten, to a winning regular-season record and into the playoffs.
Compared against any of his divisional peers, Howard’s record of success is unmatched.
New kid on the block or not, Howard is now the best goalie in the Atlantic Division.