While I’m still unenthused about the idea of the new Vegas Golden Knights actually playing their games, I’ve been giddy as hell about the drama surrounding the expansion draft. Nothing is more entertaining than watching a highly paid GM make a dumb move, and with 30 teams involved in a fairly complex protocol for protecting players, it was safe to say that someone would fuck up.
But I didn’t expect that team to be the Detroit Red Wings. Formerly among the league’s leading innovators, they’ve now fallen on tougher times, and Sunday they provided NHL fans with one of the few true surprises of the protected list reveal. Petr Mrazek, the team’s starting goaltender at the outset of last season, will be available to the Knights if they desire him.
Mrazek isn’t a lock to be taken by Vegas, which seems to have zeroed in on Marc-Andre Fleury as its starting goalie in year one. (They may very well select Mrazek and flip him to another team.) But just last year he was supposed to be Detroit’s goaltender of the future. Now, GM Ken Holland has decided he prefers Jimmy Howard—who boasts a nearly identical career save percentage, but is eight years older, more fragile, and more expensive—to Mrazek, who, while disappointing in 2016-17 with a .901 save percentage, still has plenty of potential.
If we take Holland at his word that he has no side deals with Vegas, the best I can come up with are four reasons why the Red Wings didn’t protect Mrazek. All are semi-logical but none seem sufficient.
- The Wings are extremely high on goaltender Jared Coreau, who struggled in 14 NHL games this season but played fairly well for the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins. It’s possible that the Wings staff sees in Coreau their goalie of the future, but he’s still a few months older than Mrazek and an unquestionable downgrade in the short term. If Detroit needs to rely on him this season, they’re in trouble.
- The Wings simply don’t like Mrazek. Anonymous sources in the organization talking to MLive’s Ansar Khan didn’t have any compliments for the young goalie after he was left off the protected list: “Sometimes he’s too cocky for his own good, some in the organization believe. He became increasingly difficult to coach last season, they said.”
- Teams owned by the Ilitch family have traditionally been loyal to their veterans to a fault, giving large contracts to longtime role players who have played a part on good teams. Jimmy Howard is one of the last links to the Wings’ Stanley Cup years (he was a backup to Chris Osgood in their most recent appearance), and maybe Holland and the executives are fond of him in a way that goes beyond typical business.
- It’s a stretch, but the theory that makes Holland look best is one where Mrazek is bait meant to distract from other players. The Golden Knights have to take one guy from every team’s roster, so perhaps, in protecting the undesired Howard and dangling the potentially intriguing Mrazek, they entice Vegas to pass up young guys Holland wants more than either goalie but was unable to protect, like Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul or even Riley Sheahan. This is the only reason that makes a lick of sense, since the Red Wings were in no danger of losing Howard if they had left him unprotected.
Regardless of whether he plays in Nevada, Michigan, or elsewhere, Petr Mrazek is a question mark going into next season. One weak year shouldn’t be enough to derail expectations, not at age 25, and he still boasts more upside than Fleury. It will take a little while to find out who’s right about Mrazek, but he’s still a young goalie who has proven he can play at a high level. For all but a few teams in the league, that makes him a worthwhile risk.