The 2013-14 season was supposed to be Martin Brodeur’s swan song, a victory tour for a Hall of Fame-bound goaltender who backstopped his New Jersey Devils to three Stanley Cups and provided two decades' worth of exceptional goaltending.
In fiction, the end to Brodeur’s run would undoubtedly have ended that way. After some tough seasons, he would have rebounded to provide the Devils with strong play, challenging his replacement for every minute of ice time.
He would have been particularly exceptional during the NHL’s Stadium Series, showcasing the kind of play that typified his career for a national audience in that outdoor game. In the end, he would bow out gracefully, handing the reins over to a worthy successor in Cory Schneider.
This is not fiction, and in real life, Brodeur has done none of those things. What he has done is his best to put a layer of tarnish on an incredible career.
It starts with Brodeur’s play, which has conformed not to some contrived narrative but to a simple truism: Players get worse as they age. While the average save percentage of an NHL goaltender has continued to climb, Brodeur’s own play has fallen off dramatically:
Brodeur provided a strong—if short—run of quality goaltending in 2012, as the Devils went to the Stanley Cup Final. Other than that, he has been a decidedly subpar starting goaltender for four seasons now.
Given that he is 41, this should not come as a surprise.
If he had retired at age 37—like Patrick Roy—he would have left the game while still an NHL difference-maker—as Roy did. Instead he chose to hang around after his best days were behind him, and that shows in his performance.
Unfortunately, that led to the spectacle on January 26. In Yankee Stadium and on national television, Brodeur surrendered six goals on 21 shots against the New York Rangers, starting the third period on the bench with Cory Schneider replacing him.
While multiple players complained about the ice conditions afterward, it was unfortunately Brodeur who came out with the strongest criticism:
Brodeur: "Worst ice I ever played hockey on."— Rich Chere (@Ledger_NJDevils) January 26, 2014
It is a completely understandable complaint, but it also came across as self-serving. Sadly, that too has been a theme with Brodeur this season. When things go poorly, he can’t seem to help himself from speculating on a trade somewhere else.
Back in early November, after Brodeur had struggled early and Schneider had played reasonably well—Schneider had a 0.907 save percentage to Brodeur’s 0.888 at the time—the veteran Devil told Rich Chere of The Star-Ledger that he would be open to a trade if it would be “really fun” for him and benefit the Devils.
Two days after the debacle against the Rangers, Brodeur was at it again, telling Chere a trade was a possibility:
It’s within the team’s rights to try and make themselves better. The fact is, I have the luxury to decide what I want to do. I hope if [Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello] is able to help the team, he’ll ask, regardless of what it is. It’s definitely something that is possible.
When asked about a scenario in which the Devils wanted to hang on to a pair of experienced goalies, Brodeur indicated that would not necessarily be an impediment to a deal.
It could be another backup goalie that has experience coming in, too. Who knows? There are deals to be made. Who knows what is available?
Coming from an independent analyst, the views Brodeur is espousing would not be at all surprising. Coming from Brodeur, however, they seem less like an objective look at the Devils’ situation and more like a way of putting public pressure on Lamoriello to investigate a trade.
Just as Brodeur has the option of choosing whether or not to accept a trade, he has the choice of not publicly explaining all the good reasons for New Jersey to move him to a contender at the deadline.
In short, what should have been a final triumphant tour of duty with the Devils has gone very wrong. Brodeur has been badly outplayed by his challenger, had an awful outing in what might have been his most significant start this year and keeps talking hypothetically about how great things could be for both him and the team if he were to finish his season somewhere else.
There is good news, though: In the grand scheme of things, an imperfect ending really doesn’t matter.
The analogy of tarnish was carefully considered. Tarnish can be removed. A few years down the line, Brodeur’s career will be defined by all the good work he did in New Jersey, and a forgettable final season will be forgotten.
It would have been nice if the final year could have been more like the first two decades, but those first 20 years are still the ones that count.