After the debacle that was the 2010-11 season, no one was really sure what to expect from the New Jersey Devils this season. They were polar opposites in each half of last season under two different coaches and this year they were on their fourth coach in four seasons, not even including Jacques Lemaire twice.
In the past two decades there have been two consistencies with the Devils: winning and Martin Brodeur. However, both aspects of the franchise have begun to fade recently and, ironically, a little less of the latter can have a big impact on the former.
The Devils won three Stanley Cups in a span of nine years from 1995 to 2003, but have only won two of eight playoff series since and missing the playoffs last year for the first time since 1996.
Martin Brodeur has taken the majority of the workload every season since their first Cup win, recording at least 70 games played each year, not including two recent injury-plagued seasons, except one, when he played in 67 games in 1996-97 and from ’98-99 to ‘07-09 he never finished lower than 3rd in games played among goaltenders. It was a great plan; Brodeur is one of the top netminders ever to play, so there is no reason for him not to get into as many games as possible. Until now.
Brodeur will turn 40 in early May and is on pace to play just 57 games this season as backup Johan Hedberg’s 23 appearances is already the most for a Devils goalie other than Brodeur since Mike Dunham played in 26 games in 1996-97. Aside from missing six games in the first month of the season with a shoulder injury, Brodeur has seen less action this year, especially during the first few months.
That break early in the season has him fresh and on an upswing headed into the final stretch of the season. He is having a poor season by his standards, his .902 save percentage is his worst posting since the first lockout, but his mark of .924 in February shows he is improving at the right time of the year.
In the Devil’s past three trips to the postseason Brodeur has looked awful. In 2008 he posted an .891 save percentage and 3.19 goals-against average and in 2010 he had an .881 save percentage and 3.01 GAA. Granted he no longer has the nearly impenetrable defense in front of him he used to, but having played 77 games each regular season while in his late 30s clearly had an effect. In 2009, he only played 31 regular season games, albeit due to injury, and posted solid numbers in the first round with a .929 save percentage and 2.39 GAA. However, in that series the Devils were up on the Carolina Hurricanes by a goal, at home in Game 7 with under 1:30 left to play. They didn’t even make it to overtime.
By letting him rest periodically, Devils coach Peter DeBoer has let Brodeur save his energy for the critical time of the year. He just can’t waiver from that game plan this late in the season. Brodeur will benefit from not playing so many games, but can’t be worn out in the final month of the regular season. If DeBoer can keep his games played total in the low 50s, Brodeur and the entire team will be better of for it.
Hedberg has only started four games in January and February, but he has the chance to see more action in March. The Devils have some relatively easy games left on their schedule; nine of the remaining 19 games are against teams not in playoff position. That includes the New York Islanders four times, three next week alone. If Hedberg get the majority of those starts, than Brodeur will only play around 55 games and be fresh for the playoffs for the first time in a while.
Brodeur’s next playoff win will be his 100th and you can be sure he won’t be satisfied stopping right at that mark.