“Jimmy Howard two years ago was a star for us. Last year wasn’t as good as we expect Jimmy to be.
“When you’re an athlete and you’re proud, you want to play the way you’re capable of. Sometimes when it doesn’t go your way -- for whatever reason -- you want to fight your way back. We need Howie to do that.”
That was Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock in July, speaking to Detroit 105.1 Sports Radio about his franchise netminder. As the quote suggests, Howard struggled in ’13-14 -- the first of his six-year, $31.75 million extension -- and now, the pressure’s on for the 30-year-old to discover the form that saw him net a hefty average annual salary ($5.29M, right in between Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury in the goalie salary landscape.)
So, what went wrong for Howard last year?
Health, or lack thereof, was a problem. Howard missed 13 games with hand, knee and hip injuries and made just 51 appearances -- a decent workload, but down from his 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns, in which he logged 63 games in consecutive years. Howard’s season also ended on a sour note health-wise; he was knocked out of Detroit’s opening-round loss to Boston with the flu, shooting down speculation he was sidelined with a concussion.
When healthy, Howard’s play didn’t exactly inspire. His .910 save percentage and 2.66 GAA ranked him 36th and 33rd among all NHL goalies, and there were stretches throughout the season where Babcock opted to use backup Jonas Gustavsson with greater frequency, including a stint in early December during which the coach called Howard’s confidence into question.
“You have to find a way to get hit and you have to find a way to get confident,” Babcock said, per the Macomb Daily. “You always find out way more about yourself during tough times, but that’s the same with everybody in any walk of life. When things are going great we’re all great people. It’s when it’s not going good it’s how we choose our attitude, how we choose our worth ethic, that makes you a good pro.
“Every good goalie in the National Hockey League has been through some ups and downs.”
The hope now, of course, is that Howard is done with the lows. He’s not that far removed from a banner ’13 campaign -- during which he led the NHL in shutouts and finished sixth in Vezina voting -- and Detroit hopes he can find the confidence he once had and get back into “star” form.
To hear Howard explain it, he’s ready to put last season in the rear view.
“It was just one of those years,” he said, per the Detroit News. “Statistic-wise, it wasn’t very good. I think I can be a lot better. I’ve proved in the past I’ve been a lot better. And that’s the way I want to be moving forward.”