Red Wings keep sending mixed signals about rebuild

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Every time I start to feel some doubt about questioning if the Detroit Red Wings are truly committed to rebuilding, something silly surfaces.

Wednesday provided the latest head-scratcher, as MLive.com’s Ansar Khan reports that the Red Wings are “committed” to keeping Jimmy Howard, and are likely to hand the 34-year-old goalie a multiyear extension.

Considering the circumstances, such a decision would be downright baffling.

Old goalies, and the same old mistakes?

Again, Howard is 34. Goalies might age better than, say, snipers, but even that might be changing, as the NHL gets speedier every year.

My guess is that Howard would receive a lower AAV than his current $5.29 million cap hit in an extension, yet I’d also wager that he’d be be paid far more handsomely with a proactive extension – with a team that sure seems more smitten with him than virtually any other front office in the league – than what he’d get on the free agent market.

The Red Wings would essentially be negotiating against themselves here.

If such a move came to fruition, it could be a prime example of a team falling too deeply in love with their own players, and Detroit is in this mess, in part, because GM Ken Holland’s had his blinders on when it comes to overpaying supporting cast members like Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm.

Worse yet, the Red Wings already made a fairly bloated investment in an aging, fine-but-unspectacular goalie in signing 30-year-old Jonathan Bernier to a three-year contract at $3M per year.

Khan writes that “the Red Wings see no point in searching for a better alternative in July’s thin free-agent market,” which is confounding for a number of reasons. To start, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun recently noted there could end up being some rather interesting choices. As we’ve seen in cases like Robin Lehner so far providing a .928 save percentage at a $1.5M clip for the Islanders, teams can find serious bargains in reclamation projects (and, again, even Howard could possibly be much cheaper if he endures an average season). If nothing else, Detroit might be able to take a swing at a younger option.

What’s there really to lose if the Red Wings end up losing? Logically speaking, they’d likely benefit from tanking for a bit, so why spend what would likely be serious cash on creaky combination of Bernier and Howard?

Well, the more you wonder, the tougher it is to shake the impression that the Red Wings are either in denial of this truly being a rebuild, or refuse to believe that this process will take very long.

Holland & Co. really need to be objective and ask: what’s the ceiling for this situation?

Perhaps there are too many feelings involved here, which would only strengthen arguments that it might be about time for Holland to step aside as GM. If there’s any truth to rumblings about Steve Yzerman being the heir apparent, why saddle him with more risky contracts for older players?

I mean, unless Holland is actively trolling Stevie Y …

Howard’s value

Howard is a fine goalie, yet he’s far from irreplaceable.

The aging netminder’s save percentage is .917 this season, slightly up from his middle-of-the-pack save percentage of .915. That mark ties Howard for 23rd in the NHL among goalies who’ve played in at least three games this season. Not exactly “we can’t let this guy go” material.

This post isn’t meant to deny that Howard has value. Plenty of NHL teams could use a steady, experienced goalie, even if it’s fair to wonder how frequently Howard can flirt with elite play.

The Red Wings should take advantage of other teams’ goalie worries to net a nice return for Howard. It’s easy to picture the Flames, Kings, and other teams paying a decent ransom for Howard, especially if Detroit offered to take a short-term cap headache back to make the money work and receive even better future assets. Basically, there’s at least some room for Holland to make Howard the next Tomas Tatar: a perfectly suitable but contextually expendable player who could be moved for – hopefully – a strong return.

Even if a trade isn’t possible, let’s not forget that there have been multiple stretches where Red Wings fans and hot stove enthusiasts wondered if there was any way that the Red Wings could get out of what once seemed like an interminable Howard contract.

Now that they’re mere months of being liberated from that problem deal, they want to invest once again? The Red Wings must be snoozing through recent history classes.

***

To be clear, Howard’s an OK goalie. Sometimes he’s excellent; sometimes he struggles. It’s fine if you like him more than the average No. 1 guy. But, really, it would be pretty tough to make an emphatic argument that he truly moves the needle, especially since Howard isn’t getting any younger.

Keeping Howard around seems like the safe move. He’s familiar. The Red Wings don’t love the idea of bottoming out.

If they’re being honest, the Red Wings would admit that the risks far outweigh the rewards here. They also need to look in the mirror and realize that a rebuild is very much happening, and it will only drag on longer if they don’t embrace reality.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.