Now that the NHL season has finally returned, my concern surrounding the fantasy hockey value of Detroit Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is growing by the day.
Defensive changes should hurt Jimmy Howard's numbers this season....
Howard has been a top-flight fantasy goalie the past two seasons, posting 35 wins, a 2.12 GAA and a .920 save percentage with six shutouts last year and 37 wins, 2.79 GAA, .908 save percentage and two shutouts in the 2010-11 NHL season.
Those numbers are easily first-tier goalie fantasy levels and Howard has worked his way into being selected in the first few rounds of almost every fantasy hockey draft.
Unfortunately, winds of change have hit Detroit hard during the offseason and those changes should hurt the quality of play in front of Howard this season. Because of that, his status as an elite fantasy hockey goalie may be in trouble.
All-World defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (70 games, 11 G, 34 P, plus-21 last season) retired after 20 glorious seasons with the Red Wings. Lidstrom may have lost a step or two in recent years, but his veteran savvy and defensive awareness were second to none. He often made Howard look good and eliminated opponents from being able to set his goalie up for disaster.
Veteran defenseman Brad Stuart (81 games, 6 G, 21 P, plus-16 last season) left as a free agent, returning to the San Jose Sharks. While not on par with Lidstrom, Stuart was a heady player and gritty on defense. He'll be missed by Howard and the Wings' defensive system in general.
Left wing Tomas Holmstrom (74 games, 11 G, 24 P, minus-9 last season) is ready to retire. While not the player he was in his younger days, Holmstrom was still an assist to the team from his physical style on both ends of the ice. He, too, will be missed in Detroit.
Detroit is still blessed with some of the better two-way forwards in the league, as centers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are some of the league's best on both sides of the ice. However, Howard is going to have to rely on a largely unproven group of defensemen to help keep his view unobstructed and protect the pucks that rebound off his pads.
Entering the year, the Red Wings defensive options consist of Ian White, Carlo Colaiacovo, Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Niklas Kronwall, Kyle Quincey and Brendan Smith. Kindle will enter the season as purely a depth option, while the other six will make up the team's top three defensive lines.
Ericsson and Kronwall are expected to enter the season as the team's top D-pairing, but I wonder how long this pair will remain there.
Entering his sixth year, this is a crucial one for Ericsson (69 games, 1 G, 11 P, 47 PIM, plus-16) to step forward. He has flashed brilliance at times; at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he has the size to be a more than capable option but needs to show consistency. He's owned in just two percent of leagues polled, which is a bit low because being on the top-line should benefit him in assists and plus/minus due to the talent the Red Wings have amongst their forwards. Consider him a fourth defender with upside entering the year.
Kronwall, a first-round pick by the Wings in 2000, also enters a big year where he needs to show he can be a better-than-average defender. Fantasy hockey owners are buying in, as he's the most owned amongst the Detroit defensemen at a 91 percent clip in leagues polled. Entering his ninth year with the Wings, Kronwall has posted better than 30 points four times. His best showing was a 51-point effort (six goals, 45 assists) in the 2008-09 campaign and he is coming off a career-best 15-goal season. He's more than capable of being the Wings' most productive defenseman from a fantasy hockey standpoint, but he'll need to bring his A-game all year. Inconsistency has plagued him far too often during the last few years. He should be owned in all fantasy hockey formats and he could emerge as the team's quarterback among defenders if he can keep his focus.
Smith (14 games, 1 G, 7 P, plus-3, 13 PIM last season) and Quincey (18 games, 2 G, 3 P, 29 PIM, even with Detroit last season) are expected to share duties on the second line.
Smith, 23, spent the lockout with the Grand Rapids Griffins, which is the AFL affiliate of the Red Wings. This year, he led the Griffins' defensemen with five goals and 20 points. The team has told him to find a home, so it appears he is going to be up for the long haul and starting the year on the team's second defensive line shows their confidence in him. Late last year, he even saw time on the team's second power-play unit. Smith really intrigues me; I'm tucking him away on my fantasy hockey teams where I have the available depth. He's young and raw, but is a good stick handler and appears to have a bright future. A year or two down the road, we may be talking about him as a top-end defensive option if he can mature quickly and polish his game on both sides of the blue line. Consider him a fourth or fifth defensive line option for your team; but he could move up quickly based off playing time and production. He's owned in 36 percent of leagues polled.
Quincey, who came over to Detroit from the Colorado Avalanche last season, is a former fourth-round draft pick by the Wings. Entering his eighth year, the hope was Quincey would be further along in his development at this point. He looked like he turned the corner with the Los Angeles Kings in the 2008-09 season, posting four goals and 38 points on the season but has been mired by inconsistency since. I wouldn't count on Quincey, who is owned in 17 percent of leagues polled, as a fantasy option entering the season.
White and Colaiacovo (64 games, 2 G, 19 P, 22 PIM, plus-7 last year with the St. Louis Blues) should make up the third defensive pairing. The good news is these two know each other well, having played three seasons together with the Toronto Maple Leafs and played together in the minors.
White's fantasy value may be a bit inflated this year after he had a career-year last season, one where he was paired with Lidstrom as his defensive partner. Owned in 59 percent of leagues polled, White posted a plus-23 (previous high was plus-9) with seven goals and 32 points. He is now the team's most experienced defender and could move around depending how the lines gel early. He should be owned in all fantasy hockey formats, but last year was likely his ceiling.
Colaiacovo, who is owned in two percent of leagues polled, is a good stick handler and moves the puck around the ice well, but he has never played a full season during his nine-year NHL career. I would pass on owning him at this time.
Early in the year, don't be surprised to see the defensive pairs shuffle until the coaching staff feels comfortable and finds pairs that gel together while also providing the necessary defensive support in front of Howard.
If you have another solid goalie option, I wouldn't be afraid to sell high on Howard now and obtain another strong goalie in return as well as additional support elsewhere. The Wings simply have too many questions and average options defensively in front of him to expect him to keep up the same strong level of production. While I still feel he'll post OK numbers, I view him more as a third- or fourth-tier fantasy goalie this season than I would a lock to finish in the upper tier of scoring at the position.
Detroit Red Wings: Jimmy Howard gallery