There's nothing inherently alarming about goalie Martin Brodeur getting pulled in the first period of New Jersey's eventual victory over Atlanta Saturday night.
Brodeur gave up three goals on six shots and was obviously having a tough time of it. The smart, humane thing to do was to pull Brodeur, who was starting his 13th consecutive game.
But Brodeur's getting pulled does bring up the issue of his workload, which has been considerable.
Brodeur, 37, has played in 32 games this year, having started 31 of them. The Devils have played just 34 games this season.
Now, factor in that Brodeur is projected to be the starting goalie for Team Canada in the Olympics.
Now, factor in that prior to last season, when Brodeur missed months with a freak elbow injury, he hadn't started less than 70 games since the 1997-98 season. And prior to the freak injury, he hadn't started less than 50 games since the 1994-95 season.
Then, factor in Brodeur's playoff games. He's played 176 of them. But don't forget the unlimited overtime in the playoffs. So Brodeur's 10,947 playoff minutes translate to over 182 post-season 60-minute games.
The Devils have never been about the individual player. They've always been about the team and about their system. They've consistently let players leave the team, or traded them away, feeling that no one is irreplaceable.
The one slot where they haven't cultivated this approach is in goal, where they've ridden Brodeur for well over 15 years. There's never been a plan B with the Devils and Brodeur. New Jersey was always going to ride him until he collapsed.
And amazingly, he didn't collapse until last season's injury. And he rebounded back and still finished the season with 31 starts. Even with that scare, the Devils didn't try and bring in a back-up who could possibly start if Brodeur went down again this season. Instead, they went with Yann Danis, who so far in his career has been noticeably average.
Brodeur is aging. All of this ice time is taking a toll. You can see it in the playoffs, where the Devils have been out of the quarter finals just twice since winning the Cup in 2003. And in those two semi-final appearances, the Devils have just two wins.
You can't put all of this on Brodeur, but there definitely seems to be a pattern of the team running out of steam at the end of the season.
On the one hand, you can't blame the Devils for leaning on one of the greatest goalies ever to play the game. He's the NHL's all-time leader in wins and shares the NHL shutout record with the legendary Terry Sawchuk. Eventually, the shutout record will belong to Brodeur alone. Why wouldn't a team lean on a goaltender of Brodeur's caliber?
But the Devils need to understand that Brodeur is human. His body can no longer handle the grind of playing all season and then into the playoffs. They need to take steps to preserve both his body and his legacy.
Step one would be a solid back-up to help with the regular season workload. Even a game off a week could make a huge difference for Brodeur. The Devils either don't trust Danis to start more than a few games a season, or else aren't taking full advantage of a qualified goalie. Neither scenario is a great one, but the former seems to be the issue as before Saturday's game, the very one from which Brodeur was subsequently pulled, coach Jacques Lemaire told the media : "We try to give [Brodeur] the proper rest so he can play all of these games. And if we see at a time that he gets too much work, then we will play the other goalie."
The fact that Lemaire doesn't seem to readily know Danis' name seems to indicate the goaltender is not weighing heavily in the coach's goaltending plans.
Brodeur's getting pulled from one game is hardly cause to pull the panic alarm. But it is cause to think about how many games he's already played, and how many more games he's going to play. And then, you have to wonder if a little rest wouldn't help him last longer into the playoffs.
Hockey is a team game and every player has a role in his team's performance. You certainly can't blame the Devils recent post-season struggles on Brodeur's fatigue, but why wouldn't you want your best and, arguably, most important player as rested as possible for the playoffs?
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