Howard taking flight with Wings

Posted July 01, 2009, at 9:37 p.m.

Jimmy Howard has a memorable year on tap.

Not only is the former University of Maine All-American going to marry Rachel Miller on Aug. 1 in Bar Harbor, he has been told by Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland he will be veteran Chris Osgood’s backup this season.

Holland and the Red Wings decided not to offer backup Ty Conklin a contract. Conklin was 25-11-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage for the Wings this season but was a victim of the salary cap.

Conklin, a former University of New Hampshire two-time All-American, made $750,000 last season and would have been in line for a raise. The St. Louis Blues signed the 33-year-old Conklin Wednesday, but didn’t disclose terms of the deal.

Howard, who has spent the past four seasons with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, is out of minor league options.

“If they sent me down, they would have to put me on waivers,” said the 25-year-old Howard, who then could be claimed by any NHL team.

He will be in the second year of a three-contract but for the first time will have a one-way contract that pays him an NHL salary. He previously had two-way contracts that paid him an NHL salary when he was with the Red Wings and a substantially smaller salary with Grand Rapids.

He will make $717,000 next season.

Howard, who set University of Maine records for career shutouts (15), goals-against average (1.84) and save percentage (.931) in his three seasons, had his best season with the Griffins last season as he went 21-18-4 with a 2.54 GAA and a .916 save percentage.

“We have high expectations for Jimmy,” said Holland. “Osgood is 36 years old and we expect Jimmy to play 25, maybe 30 games for us depending upon how well he plays.

“We’re going to need some wins out of Jimmy. We’ll need [a total of] 50 wins for our club to be in the position we want to be in. In the past, Jimmy would come up and play a game for us and then go back down. This year he’ll have the opportunity to become comfortable.

“He has established himself as an elite AHL goalie and the next step is to get to the NHL and prove he can be a real good NHL goalie,” Holland added.

Howard said last winter he wasn’t affected by the length of the season for the first time in his pro career.

“I don’t think people realize how much of a change it is. If you get to the national championship game in college, you play 40 games. You play 80 in the pros [before the playoffs] and you’ll play four games in five nights and three games in three nights,” said Howard. “That really takes a toll.”

He said the fact it didn’t take a toll enabled him to be “a lot more consistent.”

“He had a tremendous training camp with us last year and a real good year in the American League,” said Holland, who credits Howard’s improvement to his conditioning regimen.

“He is probably 15 to 20 pounds lighter than he was at the University of Maine. His conditioning level has gone up dramatically in four years. With his conditioning level going up and the fact he’s more experienced, his mental outlook has improved.”

The 205-pound Howard, who played at 220 pounds at Maine, said it is a matter of maturity.

“I realized that if you want to play in the NHL, you have to make a full commitment in all aspects of your life,” said Howard, who eats healthier in addition to maintaining a workout regimen.

Howard, a second-round pick of the Red Wings (64th overall) in 2003, said he has and has learned a lot from watching Osgood and how he calmly manages a game.

“He lives in the moment. He doesn’t let little things get to him,” said Howard.

He was surprised the Red Wings didn’t offer Conklin a contract but said, “I’m definitely excited I’m getting a chance.

“I’m confident. I definitely feel I can do the job. I’ve got to work on my rebound control and be more patient in the net. I’ve got read plays as they develop.”

Howard will continue to train at the University of Maine and enjoy his house on Green Lake in Dedham on Green Lake with his fiancee.

“I can’t wait for the wedding and I can’t wait for the season to start,” said the Ogdensburg, N.Y., native.

Detroit won the Stanley Cup two years ago but lost in game seven of the Cup finals to Pittsburgh this past season.

Howard was the third-string goalie for the Red Wings during the playoffs.

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