For the third year in a row the Detroit Red Wings are going to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs and that means with the NHL trade deadline fast approaching they should be looking to sell off all of their pending unrestricted free agents to the highest bidder.
As well as any other veterans they can get a decent haul for, especially if it cleans up what is still a very messy salary cap situation.
They have no shortage of potential players to sell this season with Gustav Nyquist, Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, and starting goalie Jimmy Howard all playing on expiring contracts.
The intriguing name here is Howard because he could, in theory, be the biggest game-changer for a contender out of this entire group.
Despite playing behind what has been one of the league’s worst teams this season, he has consistently performed at a pretty high level among the league’s goalies. Out of the 22 goalies that have appeared in at least 30 games this season his overall .916 save percentage is the sixth-best mark in the NHL, while his .930 mark at even-strength is the second best behind only Toronto Maple Leafs netminder Frederik Andersen.
That is good. That is really good.
The Detroit Free Press reported on Monday that because the Red Wings don’t have a young goalie ready anywhere in the system they might have an interest in attempting to re-sign Howard, or trading him and then attempting to re-sign him in the offseason as a free agent. The latter sounds like a decent strategy but rarely, if ever, works out that way. There’s also this unpleasant reality: Howard is turning 35 in a few weeks, is probably nearing the end of his career, and the Red Wings on their current trajectory as a rebuilding team probably will not be in a position to contend with him on his next contract.
A trade and turning the page over to a new chapter in net is probably the most sensible strategy, even if it means going outside the organization. It is not like the duo of Howard and Jonathan Bernier for another season is going to be the difference between making and missing the playoffs a year from now.
There are a handful of teams around the NHL that should be interested in trying to complete such a move.
Let’s look at them.
1. San Jose Sharks
This is the obvious no-brainer team.
The Sharks are as complete as any team in the NHL at forward and defense but still have a black hole that risks sabotaging their entire season in net. The duo of Martin Jones and Aaron Dell has produced the second-worst save percentage in the NHL this season and going into the playoffs with that is a huge risk.
Joe Thornton doesn’t have much hockey left in the NHL. Erik Karlsson can be an unrestricted free agent after this season. The window is wide open right now for this team to try and win it all, something they could absolutely do as long as their goaltending doesn’t ruin them.
“Hoping” that Jones returns to his normal form shouldn’t be the strategy this season.
There is no long-term commitment with Howard beyond this season and gives them a chance to strike when everything is right there in front of them.
[Related: PHT Power Rankings: Sharks are one player away]
2. Calgary Flames
Like the Sharks the Flames are a team that has the look of a potential champion … as long as the goaltending holds up.
The Mike Smith experience has not gone well this season and has resulted in David Rittich, a 26-year-old with just a little more than 50 NHL games on his resume, starting to get the bulk of the playing time. To be fair, Rittich has played well and been a huge factor in the Flames’ rise to the top of the Western Conference standings. But given how small of a sample size we are dealing with here are the Flames 100 percent confident going into the postseason with him as “the guy?”
If nothing else Howard would be a good insurance plan in case Rittich falters, because I don’t know how much I would trust Smith to save the day if that happens given the way he has played this season.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
This is a real long shot and it would go against everything the Hurricanes have done in recent years where they have always kept the big picture in mind when constructing their roster.
Howard, as a pending free agent, probably doesn’t fit in the big picture outlook so it’s probably not going to happen.
But it never hurts to check it out. Or suggest it.
This is a team with a new owner that wants to win right now, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, and a team that has crawled back into contention and is right there in the Eastern Conference race. They are in it. They are very much in it and can get even closer with a win against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. They have a lot of good pieces that could get them closer this season, especially after adding Nino Niederreiter from the Minnesota Wild. The one thing they are lacking is still consistency in net. Curtis McElhinney has been really good this season when he has played, and that has definitely helped. Howard, especially with the way he has played this season, would only help even more. Given how good the Hurricanes are at keeping pucks away from their goalies (fewest shots allowed per game in the NHL this season, once again one of the league’s best teams in that area) a goalie like Howard could be a significant addition if they decided to go in that direction.
I still don’t think they will, but it is an intriguing thought.
[Related: Niederreiter leading ‘Canes playoff surge]
4. Columbus Blue Jackets
Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets already have one free-agent-to-be goalie on their roster, and there remains the possibility that they move him before the trade deadline. The Athletic‘s Aaron Portzline pointed out earlier this week that if they do it would most likely require another move to fill that vacant spot in net and Howard was a name that he mentioned as a possibility to keep in mind.
It does not do anything to solve the goaltending problem after this season, but the Blue Jackets are still a potential playoff team this season and there is one very important thing to keep in mind — Howard has been significantly better than Sergei Bobrovsky this season.
It would require a lot of moving parts, it would not fix anything after this season, but it might actually help them this season.
5. Colorado Avalanche
There are a lot of reasons the Colorado Avalanche have faded from their fast start.
They have zero depth after their top-three at forward. Their defense is not great. They are also getting lousy goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Philipp Grubauer. The first two problems are going to take some time to fix, and there is not one trade that can remedy that this season.
There is one trade that can help fix it the latter problem, especially with additional draft picks to trade this season. Normally I wouldn’t want to see a team with Colorado’s record go all in as being a buyer, but because of the West playoff field being what it is they are still very much in it. With decent goaltending and the three forwards they have at the top of the lineup they could be a headache for somebody in the first round if everything clicks at the same time. A goalie like Howard might help them get there.
Related: What is eating the Colorado Avalanche?
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.