The Devils' brick wall stays great even as he approaches 40
Roughly 3 months shy of his 40th birthday Martin Brodeur is still the man in between the pipes for the New Jersey Devils. Even though he doesn’t play 70 games anymore and shares some of the load with backup Johan Hedberg, he is still the man in New Jersey, almost 20 years later.
On Sunday night Brodeur started in his hometown against the Canadians and had 21 saves while leading the Devils to a 3-1 victory. The Devils have been on fire since the All- Star break going 8-1-1, moving up to fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. The victory left the Devils with 72 points, one point ahead of both the Penguins and Flyers. In the process, Brodeur has played vintage hockey and has been a major part in the team's recent success, going 7-1-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average since the break.
For the time being things seem normal again in New Jersey after some feared the worst. Thanks to Brodeur the Devils haven’t had to worry about their goalie situation since the early part of the 1990’s. In sports, the goalie position is one of the hardest trades and it’s not often a goaltender has the durability and longevity that Brodeur has been blessed with. Devil fans have always cringed of the notion of Broduer hanging up his pads one day, but after last year’s dismal season in which the Devils lost 24 of their first 33 games, in which Brodeur looked nothing like his former self, retirement appeared on the horizon. He battled injuries and only appeared in 56 games, while having his worst statistical year in his professional career. For the first time he posted an under .500 record, posting a mere 23-26 mark. He also had his second highest goals against average at 2.45 goals a game, while also posting his lowest save percentage since the 94-95 campaign at just .903. It was looking as if father time had finally started to catch up with the iconic goaltender.
As the 2011-2012 season began people were wondering if the 39 year old Brodeur could regain his form and still play at a high level. But during the first few weeks, he struggled once again with injuries and couldn’t get it going. He missed six games back in October with a shoulder injury and only won 6 of his first 13 starts. It seemed like the Devils were going to have another poor season and Brodeur’s playing days were coming to a close. But, over the last few weeks he has picked up his play and proven that he still has plenty left in his tank.
After Brodeur won his first start after the All-Star break against the Rangers coach Pete DeBoer said, “As long as the schedule allows, we’re going to load him up with games.” At the time this notion might have seemed a bit outrageous to some, for the Devils to ride out the rest of their season on the 39 year old goaltender’s back, especially after his poor start. But Brodeur has shouldered the load and has the played his best hockey in a while, looking like his old- self.
This is the same battle-tested, veteran who has been here plenty of times before. With 3 cups under his belt and almost every goalie record already accomplished there isn’t much more for him to prove. But for Brodeur, being the last remaining link from the 1995 Devils Stanley Cup team, the first of 3 cup winning teams with him in net; it’s about proving that he can still play and pursuing the Lord Stanley one last time. He is one of the fiercest competitors and loves playing the game of hockey; he wants to keep playing but he also still wants to compete at a high level. He doesn’t want to just hang around, and he has proven that he can still be a big contributor and possibly help guide New Jersey back to the Stanley Cup.
Brodeur’s contract expires at the end of the season and with his 40th birthday fast approaching in May his future isn’t fully clear. Just a few months ago, he stated that he would like to return for his swan song next season and that he was feeling really good. He claimed that he was still having fun, and that an awful season last year has made this year that much more enjoyable for him. While, he is leaning towards coming back for another season there are no guarantees, especially with a 40 year old goaltender. But, Brodeur and the Devils have been on a tear recently and those retirement talks have been pushed aside.
Instead, the Devils focus is on getting back to the playoffs and winning a fourth cup behind Brodeur. For Brodeur and the Devils, the cold reality is that they are almost 17 years removed from their first cup and 9 years since their last back in 2003. Not much remain from those glory years other than Brodeur, and their three Stanley Cup banners that hang above their rink. The last few years have been tough in New Jersey, as the Devils have only won two postseason series since the lockout and haven’t come close to another championship. After last year, people began to wonder if the Devils window to win a cup with Brodeur in net was closing, but with the recent surge the Devils are back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and looking for home ice advantage in the playoffs. So, for Brodeur getting back to the playoffs and possibly winning another cup would certainly silence any remaining critics and be a great way to finish off a remarkable career.
During that magical 9 year stretch in which the Devils won 3 Stanley Cups they prided themselves on defense and the infamous “trap”. Many of Brodeur’s critics credit the Devil’s success not directly to Brodeur, but rather to the defensemen who played in front of him. During these glory years, the defense was anchored by Hall of Famer Scott Stevens, future Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer and another lifelong Devil Ken Daneyko. They also possessed a group of talented defensive forwards in guys like Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, Sergei Brylin. To go along with the talent of Patrik Elias, Bobby Holik, Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora, Brian Rafalski, and others. And since the departures of many of those key defensive cogs, the Devils haven’t won anything, which has led many to question Brodeur. However since the lockout Brodeur and the Devils have continued to have success, but just haven’t gotten over the hump in the playoffs, with the exception of last year’s dreadful season. When criticizing the Devils recent failures, people forget how great the Devils organization and Brodeur have been for so many years.
The New Jersey Devils were known as the Colorado Rockies until they moved to New Jersey in 1982. The franchise was at best a mediocre team until the arrival of current President and general manager Lou Lamoriello in April of 1987. The Devils have made the playoffs for all but three years since the 1987-1988 season. Including 13 in a row from 1996-97 until last year’s debacle. Last season was also the first year the team finished without a winning record since the 1990-1991 season, which was tied with the Detroit Red Wings as the longest such streak of any team in the four major sports. Today in sports it’s not easy to achieve success and almost impossible to sustain it.
But Lamoriello along with Brodeur have transformed the Devils from an expansion team to model franchise. Lamoriello drafted the Canadian native with the 20th pick of the 1990 draft and it’s been history ever since; literally! Brodeur surpassed Patrick Roy in 2009 to become the all-time leader in regular season wins and currently has 646. On top of that, Brodeur holds the goalie record for shutouts, games played, career saves, overtime wins, total minutes and numerous other records. He has also won four Vezina Trophies, the Jennings Trophy five times, the Calder Memorial Trophy and he has been a ten-time All-Star. To go along with his 3 Stanley Cups and his 2 Olympic gold medals with Canada. These accomplishments are a testament to his durability and greatness.
Not every day does a franchise player like a Nicklas Lidstrom, Joe Sakic, or Mike Modano come around, and it’s even rarer for that guy to be a goaltender. But Brodeur has been the rock in New Jersey ever since his debut way back on March 26, 1992. And he’s proving that even at almost 40 he can still be the rock in net for the Devils. After Sunday’s victory, coach DeBoer reiterated his confidence in the veteran net minder, “"He's on top of his game right now, and it gives the whole team confidence.” Brodeur has excelled over the past few weeks with the increased workload, perhaps because he is used to playing almost every day. He has once again provided the Devils with stability in net after just a few weeks ago the goaltending was a major question mark. He has shown glimpses of his former self and has the Devils in great position to make to playoffs for an inconceivable 17th time with him in goal.
Unlike Devil teams of the past they don’t have any top flight defensemen and aren’t defined by their outstanding defense. But with the scoring punch provided by the $100 million dollar man Ilya Kovalchuck, to go along with the superb play of Captain Zach Parise and the always solid Patrik Elias the Devils are setting up to make another deep playoff run behind Brodeur. He has started a whopping 180 playoff games over the years and would like to add to that total this spring. A lot of starts will come his way over the next two months and even if for the last time, he will try to lead the Devils to the promise land.
Nobody knows if this will be the final time we see Brodeur lead the Devils to the playoffs and it remains to be seen if he will rekindle some of that old magic or if his soon to be 40 year old body breaks down again. But, no matter what happens Brodeur will one day have his number hung up in the rafters, and probably have a statue of himself built outside the stadium. But for now, it’s all about getting back to the playoffs and getting one more crack at bringing the cup back to New Jersey.