Martin Brodeur, one of the greatest NHL goalkeepers, is entering the last year of his contract. The 39-year-old, who's coming off one of his worst seasons, will have to choose between retiring or coming back to hockey. Prior to the 2010-11 season, most fans probably would have asked him to stay. But Brodeur's numbers during the season made fans, analysts and reporters raise their eyebrows just a little and paved the way for calls for retirement.
Last year was a trying season for the Devils, and especially for Brodeur. The Devils found themselves well-acquainted with the NHL's cellar by the middle of the season and missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The Devils fired their head coach, saw their best player in Zach Parise go down in October and basically spent three months floundering around in a state of hopelessness.
A lot of that rubbed off on Brodeur, who clearly isn't the same goalkeeper who won 48 games in a single season. He's not the same goalkeeper who can play north of 70 games every year or start back-to-back games. But that doesn't mean he should call it quits.
Fans can fault Brodeur for the bad season to an extent. But when the future Hall-of-Fame goalkeeper has a poorly motivated team playing under less-than-capable coach John MacLean, it isn't all his fault. Multi-million dollar "star" Ilya Kovaluchuk didn't help the Devils as much as expected. Parise went down in October. Defenseman Bryce Salvador didn't play at all, and the other tough, physical defenseman, Colin White, clearly lost an edge to his game.
Brodeur's numbers did drop significantly in the 2010-11 season. Not only did the numbers worsen, but the 39-year-old was also benched and played in only 56 games. The last time Brodeur played less than 70 games (excluding his injury shortened 2008-09 season) was in 1996-97.
Brodeur's goals-against average jumped from 2.24 in 2009-10 to 2.45 this past season. His save percentage dropped by 0.13 and he only won 23 games, his lowest total since 1994-95 (excluding 2008-09).
Yes, there was a stretch when Brodeur — who owns 625 wins — stopped playing. Backup Johan Hedberg came in and played slightly better than Broduer, posting a .912 save percentage and a 2.38 goals against average. Hedberg played in 34 games, almost as many as Brodeur. The scariest part is that in November and again in February, Hedberg started for seven or more consecutive games. In years past, the Devils have rarely spelled Brodeur for two consecutive games or more.
Those statistics all point toward a steady downfall for the future Hall-of-Fame goalkeeper, right? Brodeur, who's entering the last year of his contract, which will expire when the Montreal native turns 40, should retire, right?
Well, here's the thing: The Devils were terrible last year. They were the worst team in the league until mid-January. The team was in a state of disaster, and the coaching change and captain Jamie Langenbrunner's trade prove it.
New Jersey's first-half sob story and second-half red-hot streak is well known, but simply saying the Devils only won 38 games and missed the playoffs doesn't illustrate how poorly the team played. Statistics can't show unintelligent mistakes, missed passes or laziness from the rest of the team.
It's hard to play well and win when the team playing in front of you doesn't do anything but play poorly. And by the time general manager Lou Lamerriollo finally fired MacLean in favor of Jacques Lemaire, the damage had already been done. Half the season had passed, and it wasn't until mid-January that the Devils started playing like, well, the Devils.
When the Devils were collapsing, everyone wanted to blame Brodeur. After all, he is the last line of defense. He's supposed to be the one who keeps the other team off the scoreboard. But he can't be expected to do everything. There are 19 other players on the team, five other players on the ice with him, who are supposed to play well. If they don't play on the same level, it makes it harder for Brodeur to display the same skill set he's always shown.
Barely anyone on that team played well. MacLean wasn't a good enough coach for the Devils and he couldn't motivate the team enough to skate well. The team lacked basic skills, like, oh, on-target passing, to name one. That's not Brodeur's fault, but he definitely felt the effects.
It was a disaster year for the Devils and maybe it's human nature to pin that fault on the goalkeeper, but there's no reason why anyone should blame their downfall solely on Brodeur. Did he play a part? Probably. But he wasn't responsible for a host of problems, particularly the team's lack of motivation through December.
Oh, and then this happened: The Devils turned their season around after falling to the Flyers in back-to-back games in January. After Jan. 8, the Devils posted a 6-2 record to close out the month, officially signaling the team's turnaround. Marty Brodeur was in net for seven of those eight games that helped the Devils get back on track.
If the Devils or coach Lemaire didn't have faith in Brodeur's ability to play, they wouldn't have trusted him in net.
Brodeur is the last defense and there were some plays, some goals, that he could have and should have stopped. But there were equally as many plays where Brodeur posted stunning, memorable saves. This trend has been happening since 2010, when the Devils met the playoff exit quickly, courtesy of Philadelphia. Brodeur wasn't amazing in that series, in which the Devils lost in five. But it's not his fault the Devils offense didn't show up for the series and Philadelphia peppered him with shots.
Speaking of 2010, look at Brodeur's numbers from that year. He had .916 save percentage, 45 wins, and a 2.24 goals against average. Those aren't exactly bad numbers, and they prove that 2010-11 could have easily been a bad fluke.
So just because Brodeur isn't — and probably won't be — posting the same numbers from his younger days, it doesn't mean he should retire. He's old, not decrepit. He can still play, even if not as a 70-game starter. In fact, he's playing at a level right now that most other goaltenders in the league have been at their entire careers. The problem is, well all expect a certain level of play from Brodeur, and if he can't meet those standards, fans think it's over.
Even if you don't believe Brodeur's subpar numbers result from his team's poor play, it's really hard to discredit a player who has a .913 career save percentage, a 2.22 career goals against average and who holds the NHL records in wins and shutouts.
Maybe he won't be a full-time starter who transcends traditional goalkeeping standards, but he can still play. So it's not time for the future Hall-of-Famer to hang up his skates.