Changing with the Times

Veteran Goalie Jimmy Howard Is Retooling His Game To Adapt To The New NHL

After seven NHL seasons, 220 career wins and more than 11,000 saves, Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard decided his game needed an overhaul.

His success in Detroit was built around an aggressive, all-in-on-the-first-shot athletic style that sometimes left him out of position to stop a rebound or prevent a quick pass turning into a scoring chance. With 400 plus NHL games under his belt, Howard realized that to continue to thrive in the best league in the world, he would have to change the way he played in the net.

“The speed of the game has gotten so fast and every single guy can shoot the puck, shoot it hard and shoot it quick,” said Howard, the Red Wings second round pick (64th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. “I felt that I needed to reel myself back in and not play as aggressive as I did early on in my NHL career.”

That’s when Howard enlisted Jeff Salajko, now the Red Wings goaltending coach, to help him retool his game to stay relevant.

“Jimmy asked me ‘What do I have to do to stay in this league? Because I am willing to do it,’” Salajko recalled. “He was motivated, he was hungry. We made a plan and went at it.”

Howard had always spent time refining his game and improving his fitness and flexibility, but this was different. Salajko worked with him on being patient, staying on his feet from Point A to Point B and adjusting his depth in the crease based on the situation—all with the goal of becoming more efficient and staying in position to not only make the first save, but also the second and third one.

Howard called the process “learning the new moves the kids are doing these days.”  

“And I am still working on it,” he said. “You can’t just rush off the goal line to get out and make yourself as big as you can. You don’t have that time because of the way guys can move the puck. Now it’s just a little body shift to get your body in between the shooter and the net. It’s a lot more of controlled motion and trying to get the middle of my body set on the puck.”

In today’s NHL, everyone crashes the net, traffic in the crease is at an all-time high and defensemen trail the play ready to jump into open ice for a scoring opportunity. Locating the puck, reading the play and making quick decisions have always been important skills for a goalie—but now they have to be done at warp speed. 

“And it’s not just the puck carrier, you have to read what guys are doing off the puck,” Howard said. 

“Shots can come from everywhere and you have to see what hand they [shoot with]. Is it going to be a one-timer?  Or does the guy have to catch the puck before he can release it? You have to figure things out really quickly.”

Growing up in Ogdensburg, N.Y. Howard’s favorite goaltender was the ultra-athletic and aggressive Mike Richter. And he still enjoys watching other goalies – including Montreal’s Carey Price and New York’s Henrik Lundquist – to see how they blend aggressive play with keep-it-simple positioning around the net.  

“I like to try things that I see, take little pieces and come up with my own style and play the way I want to play,” he said. “As I have gotten older, it’s good to be able to adapt and change. You can never stop learning.”

As his NHL career has progressed, Howard believes he’s also improved his mental approach to the game. He’s calmer on and off the ice, and is better at dealing with the frustration that comes with an off-night.

“I try not to dwell on the past and just stay in the moment,” he said. “No matter who you are in the NHL, you are going to have a stretch, a couple of games, where things don’t go your way. It’s going to happen.

“I’ve learned over the years not to mess with my game and do something to try to fix it. Just maintain what has made you successful and keep doing all those little things over and over again.”

Last season, Howard got off to a strong start before going down with a sprained knee in late December. He missed nearly three months of action before returning in early March. 

“It was so unfortunate because his game was in such a good place and it was really poor timing for the team,” Salajko said. 

But Howard was able to extend his season with a trip to the World Championships with Team USA in May, and then spent the summer in the gym and skating regularly with several NHLers at a metro-Detroit rink. 

After working so hard to reboot his game, he’s eager to pick up where he left off.

“I have been gearing up for this season,” he said. “I can’t wait.” 

Philip Colvin is a freelance writer based in Walled Lake, Mich.



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