Nearly a quarter of the way through the season, the Detroit Red Wings are right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference.
With a record of 9-5-5, Detroit is fourth in the Atlantic Division and holds the first wild-card spot for the postseason. Of course, it is way too early to discuss the playoffs, but even with 63 games left on the schedule, every one of them is important. Detroit is 3-2-5 in its last 10 games and has lost four in a row, with three in overtime or a shootout.
The Red Wings, like any other team, have dealt with injuries but also some other unique roster situations. The forwards are dealing with lineup fluctuation, while the defense is hampered by injuries. As a result, the most consistency has come from the goaltending.
Jimmy Howard, Jonas Gustavsson and Petr Mrazek have provided stability to Detroit, which has been paramount considering the ever-changing lineup in front of them. Even though the injury bug as bitten Howard and plagued Gustavsson, it hasn’t been the main reason for the team's struggles.
Here are the early grades so far for Hockeytown’s masked men.
Jimmy Howard: C+
Jimmy Howard was an integral piece in Detroit’s success last season, but the inconsistency on defense has caused issues for the 29-year-old.
His 2.67 goals-against average is ranked 39th in the league, and his 5-5-5 record leaves a lot to be desired. He suffered an injury to his glove hand in October and missed three games—which were all won by Jonas Gustavsson. Since his return, Howard has gone 2-3-5, and the team has averaged two goals per game in support.
Howard can step up his game; he’s shown it before, and Detroit could really use it. The Red Wings will need to provide him with consistent and reliable play up front before he can turn things around. With Gustavsson on injured reserve, the team will have to rely on its workhorse for the foreseeable future.
Detroit has succeeded in the past when forced to lean on Howard, and there is nothing that says the team can’t do it again. However, it seems the Red Wings are forced to do so every year, and this writer wonders how much longer it lasts before it weighs on him. He has been durable over the course of his career, but starting 75 percent of the club’s games will wear anyone out.
Jonas Gustavsson: B
Jonas Gustavsson provided Detroit with excellent depth in the crease before living up to his injury-prone reputation. He has made three starts and one relief appearance, earning a 3-0-0 record, 2.12 goals-against average and .937 save percentage.
He missed the start of the season with a groin injury and landed on injured reserve again in November with neck stiffness. His three starts were impressive in nature; he defeated the Bruins in Boston on Columbus Day, beat the Columbus Blue Jackets at home and handed Colorado its first loss of the season in a manner of four days.
If he can stay healthy, he should be able to relieve Howard more often than he has in the past. With Howard starting 15 of Detroit’s 19 games this season, he’s due for a break, and “Gus” has proved to be capable. Unfortunately, injuries make it a tall order for the 6’4” Swede.
Gustavsson is a valuable part of the organization, as evidenced by the number of starts that Howard has made in his absence. In order to keep a healthy and effective tandem moving forward, Detroit will need to allow both goalies sufficient playing time in accordance with their roles. While Gustavsson remains out of the lineup, Howard will have to shoulder the load.
Petr Mrazek: A-
Not to take away from the youngster’s first career shutout, but the Oilers have only 10 points through 20 games and are the worst team in the Western Conference. With Gustavsson on injured reserve, Mrazek had been the backup to Howard and made his only appearance on the second night of a back-to-back during a road trip to Western Canada.
Mrazek was steady in his one appearance and could see another one before Gustavsson returns. Detroit has a set of back-to-back games home to Washington on Friday, Nov. 15 and at the New York Islanders on Saturday, Nov. 16. He could get the nod in one of them.
Once Gustavsson returns, Mrazek will take his talents back to Grand Rapids of the AHL. He is better suited in the minors where he’ll get consistent playing time rather than in Detroit charting faceoffs. The 22-year-old still has plenty of time to develop, and the Griffins will give him every opportunity to play.
Detroit’s goaltending is anything but a problem. The depth (when healthy) is an advantage in the wide-open Eastern Conference. Howard is likely to bounce back, and Gustavsson will eventually get healthy and help the team right the ship. Unfortunately, it means the Red Wings will send Mrazek down, but that is the best course of action for all parties involved.
These grades aren’t a testament to the players' skills but only a measurement of their performances during this season’s first quarter. Of course, plenty of other variables factor into their numbers, so these guys can and will likely improve.