There were a couple of surprises when the NHL protection lists were released Sunday, but none more shocking than Red Wings general manager Ken Holland’s decision to protect veteran Jimmy Howard over Petr Mrazek.
Mrazek, age 25, had been tabbed as Detroit’s “goalie of the future” and Howard, already 32 years old, had popped up in several trade rumors over the past few years. In fact, during 2015-16, Mrazek turned in a first-half performance that had people calling for Vezina votes. He ended the season with an .921 save percentage and 2.33 goals against average.
In contrast, Howard posted a .906 save percentage and 2.80 GAA. Mrazek, at 27-16-6, was a major reason Detroit made the playoffs; Howard went 14-14-5 as the clear backup, starting only 33 games.
Wait a year, and the script flips.
Mrazek played more games in 2016-17, (44 starts to Howard’s 24), but his stat line was night and day. He only posted a .901 save percentage and a whopping 3.04 GAA. Howard, though in a much smaller sample, put up a .927 save percentage and a 2.10 goals against average.
Whether it was because of a bad year, lingering resentment from a contentious salary arbitration last summer, or some other reason, Holland decided to expose the promising Mrazek. Holland even said on record that he won’t make any side deals with Vegas to ensure that the expansion team picks another player.
#RedWings Ken Holland declined to explain his reasoning for protection list (inc. exposing Mrazek), said no side deal in place with Vegas.
— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) June 18, 2017
The Golden Knights, especially when faced with the Red Wings’ other offerings, are almost guaranteed to pick up Mrazek.
So, does that change their drafting strategy? Until now, it was assumed that Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be Vegas’ starting goaltender in the fall. It was revealed after Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup victory that he had already waived his no-movement clause, but only for the Golden Knights.
Fleury is a legitimate starting netminder, so he seems like a natural fit for the fledgling squad. But Mrazek, despite his downward blip this year, also appears ready to seize the starting job and is both younger and cheaper than Fleury.
Plus, the Penguins chose to protect four forwards and four defensemen, meaning they have left guys like Bryan Rust and Carl Hagelin up for grabs. Could the Golden Knights, who will have several good goaltenders to pick from, prefer to strengthen a position where they’re likely to be weak?
Though Vegas is required to pick three goaltenders, they’re likely to want four at least (two NHL, two AHL) and Fleury is just one of several names who could be very intriguing for them.
Linus Ullmark, from the Buffalo Sabres, has 21 NHL games under his belt and a career .913 save percentage. Only 23, he is in a good spot to be an NHL backup or be sent down to the AHL. Joonas Korpisalo of the Columbus Blue Jackets has played admirably behind Sergei Bobrovsky, to the tune of a career .915 save percentage (however, it has been reported that the Blue Jackets will pay for Vegas to select William Karlsson, Ryan Murray or Matt Calvert). Still, Malcolm Subban (Boston), Michael Hutchinson (Winnipeg), Philipp Grubauer (Washington), Jaroslav Halak (N.Y. Islanders), Antti Raanta (N.Y. Rangers), Calvin Pickard (Colorado) and Aaron Dell (San Jose) are all up for grabs, too.
With so many options, there’s no guarantee that Fleury is Vegas’ No. 1 guy. Adding Mrazek to that list dulls his shine even more.
Ultimately, the most likely scenario involves another trade. It’s rumored that the Penguins have a handshake deal in place with Vegas GM George McPhee to ensure Fleury heads to the desert. But Mrazek could bring in several bidders looking for a new netminder, perhaps a team such as the Arizona Coyotes.
In Ken Holland’s big goalie gamble, Vegas is going to once again prove that old truism — the house always wins.
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