Last season was a breakthrough season with a capital “B” for former University of Maine All-American goalie Jimmy Howard.
After spending four years honing his craft for the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League, Howard became the starting goalie for the Detroit Red Wings and was the runner-up for the Calder Trophy awarded to the National Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year.
He was the NHL All-Rookie Team goalie.
The 26-year-old Howard compiled a 37-15-10 record, a 2.26 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
He had the league’s fourth-best save percentage and fifth lowest GAA.
Detroit goalie coach Jim Bedard said he expects “more of the same” from Howard.
“He has looked fine in the preseason,” said Bedard. “We lost to Toronto 4-2 the other night but we had something like 15 Grand Rapids players in the lineup and Jimmy was our best player.”
Howard will be one of five former Black Bears opening the season on an NHL roster.
Dustin Penner will be on the left wing for the Edmonton Oilers and right wing Teddy Purcell will join defensemen Mike Lundin and Brett Clark on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster.
Veteran NHL left wing and 1992-93 Hobey Baker Award winner Paul Kariya, who played with the St. Louis Blues last year, will sit out the year as he recuperates from post-concussion syndrome.
Bedard said he wasn’t surprised at Howard’s terrific rookie year.
“I saw it begin to happen two years ago when he changed his off-ice habits,” said Bedard. “He learned how to train and he changed his diet.”
He said they have worked a lot on his legs during the preseason.
“He skated as much if not more than ever,” said Bedard. “He’s a big-boned kid who is a good athlete and is extremely strong. That’s why he was able to play 56 out of 58 games for us (in one stretch).”
Bedard said another point of emphasis has been the “X-factor.
“We’ve worked on things like moving the puck better and setting the pucks up for his defensemen,” explained Bedard.
“I’m going to try to help out a little bit more than I did last year,” said Howard. “I didn’t have any confidence going out and moving the puck around last year. I didn’t want to give it away. But I’ve worked on it during the preseason and I’ve gotten a little better at it. It’s still a work in progress. It isn’t going to happen overnight.”
Howard said he has had a good training camp and isn’t worried about having a sophomore slump.
“I’ll leave that up to you guys in the media,” joked Howard. “You’re going to have bad games here and there. It’s an 82-game schedule and stuff is bound to go wrong.
“I’m just trying to get better and better each day. You’re constantly revamping your game. I want to give the guys a chance to win every single night,” said Howard. “Winning is what cuts it in this league. If you’re winning, everything else falls into place.”
The Red Wings were bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the second round by the San Jose Sharks last season and that serves as additional motivation, according to Howard. The addition of veterans like center Mike Modano and defenseman Ruslan Salei and the return to health of several Red Wings following an injury-filled 2009-2010 season has heightened expectations.
“We have really added to the depth of our team. We’re going to be a fun team to watch,” said Howard, who will start Friday night’s opener at home against Anaheim.
Tampa Bay has had a front-office overhaul with former Red Wings star and captain Steve Yzerman taking over as the general manager and Guy Boucher being named the new coach.
“This is, by far, the best feeling I’ve ever had coming into the season,” said Lundin, 26, who had three goals and 10 assists in 49 games for the Lightning last year after starting the season with Norfolk in the AHL.
He averaged 21:56 of ice time per game for the Lightning and said getting quality playing time helped out a lot.
After the season, he got a chance to play for Team USA in the World Championships.
Training camp went well, he said.
“I had two good games and two OK games,” said Lundin. “I just want to be consistent and keep things simple.”
He scored a game-winning overtime goal against Florida in a 2-1 exhibition game win and said he hopes to chip in more, offensively.
Although defensive zone play will always be his priority, he may jump up into the play more often if the situation presents itself, he said.
He enjoys having former Black Bears Purcell and Clark on his team. Purcell was his Maine teammate in 2006-2007.
“We’ve got our own little connection,” said Lundin.
Clark, 33, has played 517 NHL games for three different teams. He signed as a free agent after notching 3 & 17 in 64 games for the Colorado Avalanche last year. The Lightning also added two other veteran defensemen in Pavel Kubina and Randy Jones and two quality forwards in Simon Gagne and Ryan Malone to go with the prolific trio of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.
The 25-year-old Purcell had 6 & 9 in 60 games while playing for the Los Angeles Kings and the Lightning last year. He was traded by the Kings to the Lightning.
Penner, 28, will try to build off a career-best season.
Penner had 32 & 31 in 82 games for the Oilers. He set single-season highs in goals, assists and points (63).
Several other former Black Bears will begin the season in the AHL awaiting a call-up.
Center Ben Guite will play for the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate, the Springfield Falcons; St. Louis goaltender Ben Bishop will return to the Peoria Rivermen; right wing Greg Moore signed a free-agent deal with Philadelphia and will play for the Adirondack Phantoms; Detroit defenseman Doug Janik will start out with the Grand Rapids Griffins and defenseman Matt Duffy signed an AHL/ECHL contract and could see duty for former Maine defenseman Jack Capuano’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers club.
Many other former Black Bears are going to play in Europe or in other pro leagues in North America.