This May, Johan Hedberg will turn 40 and Martin Brodeur 41.
The New Jersey Devils' goaltending position has been about as fluid as Bill O'Reilly's political leanings or an Arctic glacier over the past 20 years. It is seemingly permanent and set in stone.
Martin Brodeur has occupied that small area of blue paint between the goalposts in New Jersey since 1993. His teammate for much of this year, Stefan Matteau, wasn't even born yet when Marty became the franchise's primary 'tender. In the 20 years Brodeur has been New Jersey's mainstay, the rival Philadelphia Flyers have tried more than 20 different goalies. (Read that and other great tales of Marty in this New York Times Magazine article).
After a vintage playoff from Brodeur last season, we wondered if the last was seen of the great pad-stacking, stick-handling goalie relic. After four Vezinas and three Stanley Cups, what more did a 40-year-old have to prove?
Well, he has proved that he still enjoys the game and can play at a high level. Unfortunately, age is not just a number, and a bad back sidelined No. 30 for a full month of this shortened season. He is 2-0-1 since his return and was even credited with a goal. It's a snipe in the box score, folks!
While Brodeur was on injured reserve, another old-timer was keeping the crease warm. Not warm enough perhaps, as the 39-year-old Johan Hedberg struggled in Brodeur's absence, going 3-10-1.
With the all-time winningest goalie as your starter and a 39-year-old backup, the New Jersey Devils have a unique goaltender position with some predictable shortcomings. Let's analyze what other teams can learn from this. Most aspects will be regarding this year's situation. However, there is much to learn from Brodeur's incredible career.
A lower back problem sidelined Brodeur for a month.
It doesn't take a sabermetrician to analyze the risks of having a 40-year-old starting goaltender. Or a 39-year-old backup for that matter.
The lockout condensed the schedule a bit, and although Brodeur did skate during the work stoppage, you had to be concerned about four-game weeks. After an impressive start to the season, the future Hall of Famer's lower back barked, and he was forced to the IR. A subsequent team-wide slump ensued, and now it seems like the Devils will have to battle out the rest of the season just for playoff position.
Brodeur really has no injury history other than a freak elbow tear a few seasons ago, but this really shoudn't have been too surprising. Like the ancient New York Yankees going down left and right, older hockey players, especially goaltenders, are vulnerable to injury.
If he wasn't the game's most decorated goalie, the Devils wouldn't rely so much on his four-decade-old back and legs. The Bruins were smart to take the baton from a Conn Smythe winner in Tim Thomas and give it to the younger Tuukka Rask. With butterflying the standard nowadays, teams should be smart and stay young in net.
Hedberg struggled as the starter.
I mentioned in the introduction how much Johan Hedberg struggled with assuming the starting role while Brodeur was down.
"Moose" has played in 40 games or more in a single season just once since the '01-'02 season, meaning he has primarily been a backup during his NHL career. But this year there was a stretch when he started 14 straight games for New Jersey. That is a heavy workload for even a 29-year old goalie, let alone a guy who turns 40 this May.
Hedberg competed admirably, doing his best to cover for the ailing Brodeur. But you can't replace the Hoover Dam with a beaver dam. His save percentage was below .900 during that stretch and New Jersey plummeted in the standings.
Really, it was too much to ask. I've likened this scenario to a pitcher in baseball moving from a reliever role to the ace of the staff before. Just a totally different mindset. Instead of playing once a week, or once every two weeks, Hedberg became the guy every night. The workload is different. The preparation is different. Most of all, the pressure is especially high. It's not easy to fill Martin Brodeur's shoes.
A guy that has been a backup his whole career best serves as a backup.
Kinkaid got some garbage time after the Tampa Bay Lightning sent Hedberg to the bench on March 5.
By starting Hedberg for all 13 games Brodeur missed, head coach Pete DeBoer showed no faith in AHL call-up Keith Kinkaid. This was surprising not only because of Hedberg's struggles during that stretch, but also considering that it is possible Kinkaid will be the starting goaltender next year. It is no guarantee that Brodeur plays next year, and who knows what free-agent goalies will be available.
If the issue is that a short season is too dire of a situation in which to put a rookie in net, then New Jersey needed another goalie with experience within the organization. For instance, the Philadelphia Flyers have Brian Boucher, a guy with solid NHL experience, playing with their AHL affiliate Adirondack. The Capitals have a similar guy in Dany Sabourin at Hershey.
With a 40-year-old and 39-year-old, New Jersey had to be prepared for an injury. If you are not willing to compensate for the near-inevitable with a youngster, then have another veteran ready to fill in. Instead, they asked too much of Hedberg and the team suffered. They are lucky Hedberg didn't get hurt as well.
Brodeur displaying his old-school style by not relenting to his knees automatically.
Martin Brodeur was selected 20th in the 1990 NHL entry draft. He was not the first goalie selected, as that honor went to Trevor Kidd. Back then he wasn't exactly Mr. Irrelevant, but he wasn't the surefire Hall of Famer he would eventually become.
A lot of Brodeur's success belongs to coach-turned-advisor Jacques Caron. Caron reinforced Marty's style of play. He is an old-school, stand-up goalie. He poke checks, barrel rolls and stacks the pads the same way you saw 'em do it 50 years ago.
These methods have long been dying out. Today, most of the goalies use what is called the butterfly, almost automatically falling on their knees and hitting the ice, taking away the lower portions of the net. That takes its toll on the knees and back. You can't play 20 years constantly going up and down on your knees.
Look at the picture above. You see how Marty is still up on his feet? Almost all other NHL goalies would be on the ice by then. Right there is the influence of Jacques Caron, a guy behind the curtain who, indirectly, has a lot to do with New Jersey's three championships and Brodeur's longevity.
Maxime Clermont is one of three goalie prospects in the organization
Lou Lamoriello and the Devils brass will do everything they can to get Martin Brodeur to play at least one more year. Maybe he will, but with doubt surfacing last offseason and a back problem this year, it is far from a sure thing.
There is no heir apparent. And frankly, these three guys have all disappointed a bit this season. But in Kinkaid, Scott Wedgewood and Maxime Clermont, New Jersey at least has options at the prospect level.
They have not taken the strides in 2013 the organization was looking for, though. Clermont has a goals against average of more than three in the ECHL with the Elmira Jackals. Kinkaid's save percentage is barely above .900 in Albany. Scott Wedgewood, the youngest of all three at 20 years old, has similar number in the ECHL. There is no front-runner.
The idea is there, though. The end of the Brodeur era is coming, and inevitably soon. Instead of investing everything in one guy, putting all of your eggs in one basket, New Jersey has three guys who can compete and, deep down, have NHL-level talent. With the goaltenders coming and going in this league, other teams would be wise to do the same. It is still arguably the most important position in professional sports. And Brodeur might be the most crucial player to his team in all four North American leagues. Hopefully, he will saddle up for another ride.