As hockey spectacles go, the NHL Winter Classic is nearly impossible to top.
Playing a regular-season game outdoors in front of—at least in the case of the 2014 Winter Classic—100,000 fans is something many hockey players would pay to do, let alone earn a paycheck while doing so.
Playing in the Winter Classic is something Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard has been waiting a year-and-a-half to do.
That said, he doesn’t deserve to start the game.
To be clear, this isn’t an assessment arrived at hastily.
Jimmy Howard has earned his spot as Detroit’s No. 1 goalie with exceptionally solid play over the past three seasons. Indeed, this analyst saw Howard as the best goalie in the Atlantic Division prior to the start of the season, as Howard has done nothing but give his team a chance to win on a nightly basis.
Howard has done considerably more good than bad for the Red Wings—recent past included.
Howard’s performance against the Nashville Predators on Monday was perhaps the worst of his Red Wings career.
For a goalie that has made a living giving his team a chance to win, Howard was the sole reason the Red Wings lost the two points the rest of his team worked so desperately hard to win.
Granted, the game was Howard’s first since December 10, and though the knee injury that kept him sidelined was good enough to play on, his recovery is still a work in progress.
However, if the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on January 1 was indoors instead of outdoors, would Howard really be the one starting in net?
As painful as it would be to have Howard work hard to return from injury only to ride the pine in 20-degree weather, that does seem the only logical decision to make if the Red Wings’ ultimate goal is to end the game with two points.
Jonas Gustavsson has been more capable of earning those points this season than Howard, and if this were any other game, he would almost certainly be the one starting in net.
Nevertheless, this assertion is apparently incongruent with head coach Mike Babcock’s assessment of the situation.
After the Nashville game, Babcock told Mlive’s Ansar Khan:
“Bottom line is we got to find a way to win games, so he’s got to find a way to be better,” Babcock said. “He’ll have a game under his belt, he’ll have a practice (Tuesday at Michigan Stadium). He’s always bounced back before. There’s no reason for him not to.”
If winning is truly the bottom line, inserting a rusty goalie who recently turned in what might have been a career-worst performance seems an odd way to get there.
Babcock’s apparent faith in Howard based on the fact that he’s “bounced back before” is admirable, but there’s really no reason to believe the future will resemble the past in this case.
Howard has struggled all season long and played his worst game of the year just two days prior to the 2014 Winter Classic.
If it were any other game, he’d be watching from the bench, but because it happens to be one he’s been waiting to play for a year-and-a-half, he’ll be between the pipes when the puck drops.
What Mike Babcock is giving Jimmy Howard is a gift, a gift that Howard has not earned and does not deserve.
As such, he’ll do well to return the favor and give his team the gift of two points—he certainly owes it to them.