Let’s take a journey back a few months to the beginning of the Red Wings season. The Red Wings – coming off a season that featured more injuries than fingers on a pair of hands – looked to be well rested and primed for success. The Wings finally had a healthy lineup ready to take the ice, complete with some of the most proficient players in the game and a blue line that featured an almost sure-fire, top-five Norris contender. All the pieces for a successful season were in place, yet there was one nagging question on everyone’s mind leading up to the puck dropping on the brand new campaign…
“Will there be a sophomore slump for Jimmah?”
Honestly, I’m not one to make much of the idea of a slump or struggles based solely on the fact that a player is entering his second full season in a professional sport, especially when it comes to hockey. So much of a goaltender’s success hinges on the play of the guys in front of him, where an airtight defense can make even the most mediocre goalie look like a world-beater. So why, then, would there be any concern about whether or not Howard would continue to play at the level that took the Wings on a scorched-earth run up to the playoffs? The defense was still there. The players were healthy. There shouldn’t be an issue, right?
Fast-forward back to present day, where you are currently sitting at your computer/mobile device/etc. and hanging on every word that I am typing (or just reading this waiting for me to get to the point.) The Wings – despite a rash of injuries – find themselves seven points ahead of the Predators in the Central Division and only three points back of the Canucks for most points in both the West and the entire NHL as the All Star Break closes in. Yet something doesn’t seem right, despite the success in the standings.
Perhaps it’s just me and maybe I’m a little too hard on the guy (as Matt Saler pointed out following the most recent TP:60) but something just isn’t adding up with Jimmy Howard. I watch Jimmah play between the pipes and I know that he’s a capable goaltender (tied for most wins in the league) yet the question about a slump is still tickling some part of my brain and won’t go away. Of course, that means a solution must be unearthed, but how do you realistically go about determining whether or not a player is actually suffering the effects of an uncontrollable phenomenon that may or may not live in the minds of fans and pundits across the league?
(Yes, you know what’s coming.)
Stats. Specifically, a chart of stats.
A quick disclaimer before we move ahead: I’m fully aware that circumstances such as playing style, opponents, ice conditions, experience, etc. can not be fully accounted for with a series of numbers and percentages. I could spend a lifetime staring at every second of Howard’s game to try and pinpoint whether or not his game is different from a year ago, but I just don’t have the time, patience or sanity to do that. Instead, the numbers you see below offer up a poor-man’s look into how Howard stacks up to his inner-counterpart from a year ago at this point in the schedule (33 games played, FWIW.)
[table id=13 /]
As you can see, the numbers offer up some surprising insight. I suppose the case can be made that the only number that counts in the end are the 22 wins Howard has posted this year, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the rest of this year’s statistics are a far cry from where Howard was at this time last year. It’s easy to get fixated on the lower save percentage and higher GAA, but what really stands out to me is this: 16 fewer shots faced. 16 fewer minutes played. 18 more goals against.
That’s a pretty big blip on the radar.
Theoretically, one would expect Howard’s numbers to be a little bit sharper given that he’s faced fewer shots than he did last year up to this point, but again, it’s hard to really quantify the importance of that. How many of those shots were on the power play? How many were point-blank shots as opposed to blasts from the point? That said, 18 more goals on 16 fewer shots is definitely something worth keeping an eye on as the Wings move forward. Of course, the other side of the argument is that he has four more wins, three fewer losses,one less OT/SO loss, and one more shutout, but it’s hard to pay attention to those numbers when the save percentage and GAA numbers are so drastically different.
So the big question becomes “Is this proof that he’s slumping?” If you put a gun to my head I would say yes, but with an asterisk. It’s a statistical slump. As I said before, the most important piece here is the wins, and Howard’s atop the league right now. It is somewhat concerning though that he’s giving up more goals despite seeing fewer shots, suggesting that his defense is doing it’s job in limiting the shots he’s seeing, yet Jimmah just isn’t stopping as many.
Of course, many will point out that there’s still half a season to play, and I’m not one to disagree. If you ask most Wings fans when Howard was at his best last year, they will tell you it was in the second half of the season when the Wings went on their tear to the playoffs. And while that might be true, Howard’s first half numbers were equally as impressive, something that tends to be overlooked in favor of more recent results. Of course, Howard’s early season success last year could be attributed to any given number of factors – including the competition he faced up to this point in both seasons – and his second half numbers this year may see a boost based on that very same metric. However, one thing that is for certain is that Howard won’t be the beneficiary of extra time off to work on his game, as was the case during the Winter Olympics last year. Instead of a full two weeks of rest and 1-on-1 time with Jim Bedard, it’s only seven days this time around. Only time will tell how much impact that has on Howard, but it’s definitely something worth keeping in mind as April and May roll around.
Despite what the numbers tell us, Howard is still an excellent goaltender and a guy the Wings feel incredibly comfortable with in net. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to improve his stats with Osgood on the sidelines, and I believe his numbers will show signs of improvement as the season marches along. However, there is real value in comparing the numbers, and there’s something to be said for the dip in statistical performance year-over-year. Are we at Steve Mason levels of decline? Absolutely not, and I wouldn’t anticipate getting anywhere close to that. But for those folks who believe in the “slump,” the numbers sure seem to be in their favor.
Photo courtesy of mLive