Devil’s in the details: The legacy of Martin Brodeur

Chip Griffin/wikimedia

SANTA CRUZ, February 3, 2015 — Now that Martin Brodeur has officially announced his retirement, the ‘best ever’ arguments will undoubtedly commence. Few things give hockey pundits more joy than paring down wins, losses, championships, records, and arbitrary comparisons of the game’s various eras. When all the hyperbole dies down, Brodeur ends up in possession of every significant goaltending record the game has been able to dream up, with the exception of playoff victories, which is held by Patrick Roy.

Nobody could have predicted his legacy when Brodeur was selected 20th by the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the 1990 NHL draft. He was not even the first goaltender selected, as Calgary took Trevor Kidd with the 11th pick. Brodeur’s junior numbers were decent, playing in the QMJHL, a league synonymous with high scores and suspect defense. In his three seasons in the Q, his goals against average was never under three, yet the Devils saw something they liked, a poise they felt they could build on.

Brodeur’s career with the Devils was a perfect storm. His arrival coincided with that of franchise cornerstones Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, and the inception of general manager Lou Lamiorello’s defensive scheme. In front of Brodeur, the Devils employed a rigid, responsible system which relied on puck possession and neutral zone dominance. The Devils of this era found themselves in countless low scoring games, managing to win most of them behind Brodeur’s brilliance.

Perhaps Brodeur’s most indelible legacy will be his selfless play and team first attitude, at least with regard to his interaction with the media. He was quick to deflect praise onto his teammates after a victory, and was just as brisk to wear the blame for a loss, few as there were. His boyish enthusiasm for the game was effusive. Veteran hockey journalists would always marvel at Brodeur’s willingness to grant interviews, not only on game days, but often right up until game time. This in an age when most goaltenders were sullen, aloof, and brazenly antisocial before contests.

Broduer changed the goaltending position. He took the modest puck-handling he saw from goalies like Billy Smith, Ron Hextall, and Patrick Roy in the eighties, and improved upon it to the point that the NHL had to change the rules because of him. The trapezoid, and the no-play zones on either side of it behind every NHL net, is there because of Martin Brodeur. He was so deft with the puck that he often acted as a third defenseman, especially on the power play, where he could collect the puck in his crease and then fire it up to the opposing blue line. Perhaps handling the puck was his way of staying engaged in games where he saw very few shots.

The enduring image of Brodeur is of the man smiling through his mask, through the highs and lows, preseason tilts and playoff game sevens. If he let in a bad goal, he would often be seen laughing with the officials as they retrieved the puck from his net. It could almost be mistaken for nonchalance, but that would be a solecism. His happy go lucky demeanor on the ice belied how driven he was to win. Occasionally, Brodeur would be lit up. It happens to everyone, even the greats. On those rare nights when he was touched up for multiple goals, Devils fans were already feeling sorry for his next opponent. If records were kept for shutouts following blowout losses, Brodeur would likely own those as well.

Although it seemed an impossibility, Brodeur finally began to submit to time and attrition. Concurrently, the Devils began experiencing an inordinate amount of organizational turbulence. For Brodeur, the wins were not coming, the pucks were getting behind him, and Lamoriello had to start thinking about the future in goal.

The Devils acquisition of Corey Schneider from Vancouver was effectively the beginning of the end for Brodeur in New Jersey. He signed with the St. Louis Blues this season and played a handful of games while their starting goalie was recovering from an injury. Upon his return, the Blues were left with three goalies, a bad situation for everyone involved.

According to reports following his retirement announcement, Brodeur will join the Blues front office for the remainder of the season. Others have predicted he will wind up back in New Jersey, involved in hockey operations at some point, maybe even as a possible successor to Lamoriello.

While the argument will be made that Brodeur’s success was a product of the system played in front of him, there was no mistaking his confidence, swagger, and competitiveness. When the entire goaltending world was submitting to a so-called butterfly system, Brodeur stuck to his own, hybrid style. He was a stalwart on dominant teams and he could always be counted on to make big saves when games were in the balance. He is a winner, a champion, and a pioneer at a position which traditionally clings to convention. The future of the NHL will undoubtedly see its share of great goaltenders, but it will likely never see another like Martin Brodeur.

Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what hes up to by checking out his website.

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