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01/18/2008 12:04 AM -

Backstopping the Griffins to a long playoff run would bolster Jimmy Howard’s resume´ for the NHL.
Story and photos by Mark Newman

Graduation is looming for Jimmy Howard and he’s cramming all that he can into what he hopes will be his final season in the American Hockey League.

The highly touted prospect, heralded as the Red Wings’ goaltender of the future, has been studying diligently for the past three seasons under the tutelage of Detroit goalie coach Jim Bedard.

“He’s been attending what (Red Wings general manager) Kenny Holland likes to call the University of Detroit Red Wings, which means being in Grand Rapids and playing a ton and figuring out how to get better every night,” Bedard said.

Howard, who played three seasons at the University of Maine, is now more concerned with his GAA (goals-against average) than his GPA, and his other numbers have been nothing short of impressive as of late.

December saw him post the best numbers of his career for a calendar month with a 1.72 GAA and a 0.939 save percentage. He recorded two shutouts and allowed two or fewer goals in 10 of his 13 starts.

In recognition of his performance, Howard, 23, was named the Rbk X-Pulse/AHL Goaltender of the Month. It’s the second time Detroit’s first pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft has been so honored. He was named AHL Goaltender of the Month in March 2006.

Howard’s explanation is simple.

“I’m just making my life easy by getting out of the crease and letting pucks hit me,” Howard said. “I’m just trying to be patient and I’m really trying not to overdo things.”

Bedard believes Howard’s recent success is due to his willingness to take advantage of his size and quickness. 

“There are two things that I stress with Jimmy when we get down to basics,” Bedard said. “One of them is playing outside the ‘paint.’ Playing outside the crease cuts down the angles and makes the net smaller because Jimmy is a big guy.

“The other things is that after a save, he’s back up on his feet instantly and back to his post so that if the puck hits a leg or there’s a rebound, he’s getting squared up to the puck as quickly as possible.”

A month earlier, Howard might have received less than passing grades. During a six-game winless streak in November, he was 0-5-1 with a 4.28 GAA and .863 save percentage.

“It was my worst stretch ever and hopefully it will always be my worst,” said Howard, who struggled like a beginning math student trying trigonometry. By any calculation, he was awful.

“When Jimmy struggles, he plays too deep in his net or he’s straying forward or backward when he moves laterally,” Bedard said. “He needs to stay balanced and get across nice and big, with his shoulders covering up the top half of the net.

“He’s got great feet and he tracks the puck well behind the net, so when they make quick passes or try wraparounds, he’s Johnny-on-the-spot and he’s there to make saves and control his rebounds.”

The fact that Howard has been able to rebound from his disastrous November is a testament to his dedication and determination. He knew he had a lot to prove this season.

“There’s pressure, but it’s a good pressure,” Howard said. “It’s a good situation for me. I just have to keep working hard, keep going out there every single day and keep learning, and only good things can happen.”

Howard arrived at training camp last fall in the best shape of his professional career. He dropped 10 to 15 pounds through a combination of cardiovascular conditioning and circuit training, as well as cutting the carbohydrates in his diet.

“It’s the same training that I did the previous summer, but I just took it to a whole other level,” he said. “I really dedicated myself. I don’t want to be one of those AHL goalies for life.”

Looking back on his first two seasons in Grand Rapids, Howard feels he played “OK,” but both he and Bedard know “OK” isn’t good enough if he ever wants to be considered in the same class as previous Red Wings netminders.

“I have to prove to the gentlemen in Detroit that I can play night-in and night-out,” Howard said, “and that if I don’t have my ‘A’ game one night, I still can win with my ‘B’ game.”

Bedard isn’t surprised that it’s taken time for Howard to find his footing in the AHL after setting NCAA single-season records for goals-against average and save percentage at Maine, as well as a number of school records.

“Jimmy’s developed a lot,” he said. “Obviously, there’s the physical part. He’s learned what it takes to be a pro, in terms of everything from his eating habits to his practice habits. He’s learned how to take care of himself and how to prepare to give himself every chance to be successful.

“It’s the same with most players. You see kids who scored 40 or 50 goals in junior hockey and all of a sudden they’re struggling to get 5 or 10 here. Some of them are like deer in the headlights. They’re playing against men every night, not 16, 17 or 18-year-old boys. The competition level is very high.”

It takes time for even the most skilled players to adjust to the professional game. According to Bedard, the Red Wings remain adamant that they will not rush a player to the NHL.

Bedard compares Howard’s development to the position that Kyle Quincey found himself in this season.

“Kyle played in the playoffs last season and was fantastic. He got some great experience, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Kyle is going to have a long career, hopefully 15 to 20 years. So is Jimmy.

“We always say if you rush in, a lot of guys end up rushing out. We like to make sure guys are ready when the time comes. It gives them a better chance to stick.”

So that means playing in the AHL – and playing a lot. The more action Howard sees, the better.

Howard currently ranks among the goaltending leaders in the AHL for games and minutes played, as Griffins head coach Mike Stothers has decided to test his young netminder with a heavy workload.

“As much as you’d like a night off every now and then, I hate sitting on the bench,” Howard said. “I want to be out there, giving the guys a chance to win every single night.”

Howard, the student, is appreciative of the guidance provided by Bedard, the teacher.

“Over the course of my career, he’s been really helpful. In November, especially with that stretch I had, he was here a lot. He worked me really hard and helped turn me around.”

Howard had started the season with three victories in his first four starts before he was recalled to Detroit to backup Chris Osgood while Dominik Hasek was on the mend.

Was that a setback to his progress? Howard refuses to blame sitting on the Red Wings’ bench for his November failures.

“You get called up and you’ve got a job to do, so when you get sent down, you have to try to pick up where you left off. This time the wheels just fell off and it got worse before it got better. It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. Now that I’m playing good hockey, I just want to keep it going.”

Bedard will do his best to keep his pupil focused on the lesson at hand, especially if another call-up occurs before the end of the season. “We’ll nip that in the bud,” he said.

The instructor is not worried. Both Howard and backup goaltender Adam Berkhoel have proven to be more than willing students. As such, Bedard has every confidence that they will succeed.

“Both Jimmy and Adam are the type of kids who if I said, ‘We’re going to meet at 4 in the morning and we’re going to run the stairs in our equipment,’ they wouldn’t ask why or how. They would just show up, get ready and do it. I’ve got all the time in the world for guys like that.”

For his part, Howard wouldn’t mind rewarding Bedard’s patience with some big wins in the second half of the season as the Griffins make the stretch run for the playoffs.

“My confidence has grown, especially if you look at my first year compared to this year,” he said. “I want to help the Griffins get back to the playoffs and make a longer run. If I need to throw the guys on my back and carry them, that’s what I’m here to do.”

When Bedard is asked about whether Howard is ready for the NHL, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We like to look at all the players in Grand Rapids as being ready. If something should happen to Dom or Ozzie, Jimmy’s the guy – no ifs, ands or buts. He’s the guy.

Howard saw action in four NHL games during his rookie season, but it’s his time in Grand Rapids that will make the difference in the long run. If he’s the Red Wings’ goalie of the future, it’s everything that he has learned in a Griffins jersey that will matter.

“There’s no question that’s what he’s being groomed for,” Bedard said. “He’s had a little taste of the NHL, a little bit of going up and down due to injuries, and that’s been good for him.

“He’s been around that atmosphere, the playoffs and what not, and it’s all part of the process.”

Howard knows there are no guarantees. If he is going to stick with the Red Wings next year, he will have to prove that he is worthy of being given the job in Detroit.

“To be honest, I don’t want anything to be handed to me,” he said. “I think it’s definitely something you have to go out and earn. I’m really looking forward to the challenge."

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