Much like my thoughts on Andreas Athanasiou’s mindset during his holdout last fall, I have a theory on Petr Mrazek’s tumultuous tenure with the Red Wings. A lot of it is conjecture, so take it with a grain of salt, but I don’t think I’m far off.
Mrazek was known as a cocky goalie from the start. His celebrations while playing for the Czech Republic in the 2012 World Junior Championship introduced him to the world. His “attitude problems” through the 2016-17 season can be attributed to it. His comments upon being traded reflect it.
“The pressure for both of us was pretty high,” he said. “You have to show up every night if you want to play the next game. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It’s a really good thing when we can battle between goalies and do the best that we can. Sometimes when they say, ‘you’re the guy who’s gonna play for a while,’ I think it’s better.”
Specifically that last line. I read that as Mrazek being frustrated that he was never made “the guy” in Detroit. Some might say he never earned it, given his regression last season, but I think the slump was caused by feeling threatened by the presence of Jimmy Howard.
We don’t know what went down in meetings between Mrazek and Ken Holland. We don’t know the reasons behind decisions made by Mike Babcock and Jeff Blashill. But what if it went something like this…
In 2012, Mrazek is coming off being named the best goaltender at the World Juniors. He wraps up his OHL career and goes pro in the fall. The Red Wings assign him to the ECHL to start the season but he quickly replaces future doctor Jordan Pearce in the AHL as the backup for the Grand Rapids Griffins, then supplants Tom McCollum as the starter. He even gets in a couple games in Detroit, going 1-1 with a respectable .922 save percentage and 2.02 GAA. By spring, he’s leading the Griffins to their first-ever Calder Cup Championship.
For 2013-14 Mrazek is back with the Griffins, with Jimmy Howard and Jonas Gustavsson manning the crease in Detroit. In 32 games he drops his GAA to 2.10 and his save percentage gets up to .924. He gets into nine games in Detroit, putting together a 1.74 GAA and a .927 save percentage.
Come summer of 2014, Mrazek has put together stellar numbers through the first two years of his pro career and Gustavsson’s contract is up. There is no reason for him to not think that he’s earned the backup role in Detroit. Yet the Red Wings re-sign Gustavsson after a season where he had a 2.63 GAA and a .907 save percentage. With one year left on his existing deal, Mrazek signs a one-year contract extension – a one-way contract to ensure he’s in Detroit for 2015-16 – but starts 2014-15 in Grand Rapids.
Injuries open the door for Mrazek, who steps in and plays 29 games. His 2.38 GAA and 9.18 save percentage are better than both Howard and Gustavsson. He starts all seven games of Detroit’s playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning and, though the Red Wings drop the series, Mrazek improves on his regular season stats, going 2.11 and .925.
Despite his playoff starts, Mrazek is the backup when the Red Wings start the 2015-16 season. He ends up starting 49 games, though, with a 2.33 GAA and a .921 save percentage, better than Howard’s 2.80 and .906.
Come Game One of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs – with the Red Wings facing the Lightning again – Howard gets the start. In the first two games of the series, Howard puts up a .891 save percentage and a 3.59 GAA as the Red Wings go down, 2-0. Mrazek takes over for Game Three but Detroit falls in five games. Mrazek’s GAA is 1.36 and his save percentage is .945.
Mrazek’s contract extension from 2014 is up and on July 27, 2016, he agrees to something of a bridge deal, two years at $4 million each. It’s less than Howard’s salary and a shorter deal but he’s being paid like a starter. The rumor is that Howard will be dealt. By all appearances, the Red Wings are now Mrazek’s team.
But Howard isn’t dealt. Mrazek gets the start to open the season in Tampa and at the final home opener at Joe Louis Arena. He gets 14 starts in the first two months, being pulled once. Howard started 11 games, also being pulled once. It’s clear it’s a 1A-1B situation.
It’s at this point that the wheels come off for Mrazek. Even with Howard hurt for much of the season, Mrazek puts up the worst numbers of his career, with a 3.04 GAA and a .901 save percentage. Both are better than the 3.46 and .887 of Jared Coreau, who “steals” some of Mrazek’s starts, including the outdoor Centennial Classic in Toronto. Rumors abound about Mrazek’s attitude and it’s even suggested that Coreau is the true heir-apparent to the Detroit crease.
Six months later, Mrazek is left unprotected in the expansion draft, going unclaimed.
He comes into the 2017-18 season the clear backup. It’s expected the Red Wings won’t even give him a qualifying offer when his contract is up (which has since been confirmed). His .910 save percentage and 2.89 GAA nearly match Howard’s numbers but Mrazek ends up dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers.
If I were in Mrazek’s skates, I would have a bad attitude, too, and it would certainly impact my play. I’m not saying it’s okay for that, just that I can understand it.
You rise up from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL in your first season and carry your team to a Calder Cup Championship. The next year your stats are even better, but a worse goalie is re-signed to play in front of you. You take over the starting role anyway and make the most of it, putting up great numbers in a seven-game playoff series.
By next fall, you lose the starting role anyway. You fight your way back to become the playoff starter again, you get a starter’s contract, and then again you’re the backup on opening night and the guy who they said they’d trade is still there taking up space in your crease.
It’s in your head, you falter, and suddenly the third-string goalie who hasn’t done anything is stealing your starts. The spiral continues. You pull yourself together over the summer. After a rough start, you’re putting up similar numbers to your partner in the crease. But it’s too late, you’re out.
Again, I’m not saying that Mrazek didn’t slump and didn’t have an attitude. I’m saying that I can see why he would have one and why it would impact his play. And, with that perspective in mind, it’s also why I think the Red Wings should have tried harder to deal Jimmy Howard, rather than giving up on Mrazek.