Should Martin Brodeur Return to the New Jersey Devils in 2012-13?

On Tuesday, New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, arguably the greatest NHL goalie of this generation, told the New York Post that he is considering returning to the Devils in 2012-13 as long as the team will bring him back.

“I’m having fun,” Brodeur said prior to the Devils’ game against the Winnipeg Jets.

“There’s a bigger chance now than before. A few people I’ve spoken to have told me that if you think you still have that little flame, keep it going, because once it’s out, it’s out.”

Obviously, Brodeur is the only one who knows if he can keep playing as he approaches his 40th birthday. But is he really making the best decision for his career?

Brodeur is in the last year of his contract and is making $5.2 million. He has been with the Devils his entire career and holds numerous franchise and NHL records.

Even though it’s pretty much certain that he’ll be in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Devils will retire his No. 30, he is just not the goaltender who used to play at least 70 games a season for New Jersey.

Last season, he was limited to 56 games because of injury. His health problems, combined with the Devils having one of their worst seasons in recent memory, saw him post the first losing record of his career. He went 23-26-3 with a .903 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA. Despite the poor statistics, however, he finished with six shutouts.

This year, he missed six games early in the season with a shoulder injury. He currently has a 14-10-1 record, but his save percentage (.895) and GAA (2.82) indicate that he is unable to steal games the way he used to. He’s also had some poor outings, most recently being pulled when the Devils were embarrassed, 6-1, by the Calgary Flames.

Over the last few years, his save percentage has been decreasing and his GAA is increasing. While some of this can be attributed to the Devils looking less than stellar at times, it cannot be argued that with age, a goalie’s performance tends to spiral downward.

If Brodeur decides to retire or play elsewhere, New Jersey will likely have to reach into the free agent market to find a replacement. Johan Hedberg, who is in his second season with the team, has been an impressive backup. But, he is 38 years old and will not be in the Devils’ future plans, let alone any other team’s.

However, Hedberg’s performance can’t be overlooked. He currently has a 12-7-1 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.45 GAA, as well as two shutouts. Last year, he went 15-12-2 with three shutouts in 34 games. He also posted a .912 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA.

The Devils have two goaltending prospects currently in their system in Keith Kinkaid and Jeff Frazee. Kinkaid, a recent AHL Player of the Week, is 9-11-1 in 22 games in his rookie year with the Albany Devils. He has a 3.02 GAA and .895 save percentage. He was called up this year but did not play.

Frazee has been in the system a bit longer than Kinkaid, as he was drafted in 2005 and turned pro in 2007-08. However, he has yet to play an NHL game. He is also currently with Albany, where he is 7-8-2 with a 2.69 GAA and a .900 save percentage.

While either of these prospects could get a look at some point during the remainder of the season, it is hard to hand over significant responsibility to either of them. Kinkaid has looked good at points, but could still use some seasoning in the minors. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem promising that Frazee has been in the organization for almost five years and has never played a game for New Jersey.

If Brodeur does return, he faces the risk of suffering more injuries, as he has proven to be prone to them over the last two seasons. If his statistics continue to decline, it will show he is trying too hard to hang on to what was and that he can’t let go.

The other possibility is that he returns to the NHL, but with a different team. He stated in the Post that he is open to other opportunities should the Devils want him back. However, other teams will see his age and the injury risk and may not be so desperate to sign him. Plus, it’s just too hard to see Brodeur anywhere else, as he will likely want to retire as a Devil.

On the positive side, he could provide a stop-gap as the Devils look to further develop their goaltending prospects. They have one ready to come into the AHL next year in Scott Wedgewood, who was drafted in the third round in 2010.  Another 2010 pick, Maxime Clermont, has struggled with the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL and may not play in the AHL next year. There is never anything wrong with making sure a prospect is the best he can be before throwing him into NHL duty.

There is no denying what Brodeur has accomplished. His records, Stanley Cups and Vezina Trophies will never be taken away from him.

However, hanging on could tarnish his legacy and leave the team and their fans with a bad taste in their mouths. He should step away after this season to preserve not only his physical well-being, but the legend he has worked so hard to build.