We Devils fans know how lucky we are.
Apart from endless whining about the Great and Terrible Trap – which the team hasn’t relied upon for years, not that it seems to matter – the worst trash talk most Devils fans have to endure centers around the parking lot parades that followed the Devils’ three Stanley Cup wins in the last 18 years. What can you do but smirk at that? Yes, you’re right, our CHAMPIONSHIP CELEBRATIONS aren’t as majestic as they could be. How sad for us.
Since Lou Lamoriello took the reins in 1987, the Devils have enjoyed a level of consistent success that is the envy of 28 other franchises (major props to the Red Wings, but that’s for another day). Lou made it happen, in large part, by never placing any individual above the team. He fires coaches with abandon, trades away fan favorites for unknowns, imposes bans on facial hair and Twitter accounts – all for the greater good. He can come across as cold, and while I don’t believe that’s an accurate description of the man it’s always been a great asset to him professionally. He cares about his employees but he’ll ship them out in an instant if it will make the team better.
Except, I believe, for Martin Brodeur.
(At this point it’s important to note, in case anyone isn’t clear on this, that I have zero inside information on Lamoriello or the Devils organization. This is speculation; take it as such.)
When the oft-dispassionate Lamoriello talks about Brodeur, he turns into a poet. He admires Brodeur’s play, as most hockey fans do, but it’s more than that – Lou seems to genuinely love Marty, and vice versa. It’s a beautiful, if unlikely, bromance, and one that Devils fans can easily relate to since we love both of them from afar.
Up until now, the relationship between Lamoriello and Brodeur has been nothing but beneficial to the Devils. Every one of Brodeur’s record-shattering 656 regular-season wins has also been a Devils’ win, a statistic which some people use to make a case against Brodeur’s greatness (again, a topic for another time) but which truly just demonstrates that this team and this goalie were a perfect match from the start. Brodeur earned the starting job at age 22 and through nearly two decades has never been in any real danger of losing it, and for good reason. But, as you might have heard, he’s 40 now. No matter what we might want to believe, 40 is not the new 30, especially when it comes to a position for which reflexes and flexibility are absolute job requirements.
Regardless of his success in this year’s playoffs, Brodeur is in decline. There’s a reason he keeps having to tell us he’s not retiring: Because his age isn’t just a number. Personally, I would love to see him win the Cup this month and retire as an act that will be damn near impossible to follow. I suspect that Lamoriello would opt for the same scenario if given the choice. But Brodeur has said time and again that he wants to play next season, which brings us to the conundrum: What should Lou do?
There’s really only one way this plays out: Brodeur comes back as New Jersey’s starting goalie and plays between 50 and 60 games, delaying for yet another year the emergence of any goalie from the farm system. (I believe the top contender at the moment is Jeff Frazee, but it’s tough to keep track or, frankly, care. So many young goalies have died on the vine waiting for Brodeur to get out of the way that learning the names seems futile.) I just don’t see Lou letting Marty wear any other uniform.
Sentimental fan that I am, I’m actually glad of that. If the three (and counting?) Stanley Cup wins represent the franchise’s success, Brodeur represents its legacy. He is New Jersey’s Mario Lemieux, our Rocket Richard, our Bobby Orr. He is the greatest player who will ever wear a Devils sweater and the player who, as time goes by, will grow ever more synonymous with the logo on that sweater. Few teams are lucky enough to have a true superstar play his entire career for only them; if the Devils have to sacrifice one more young goalie to the altar of Brodeur then, with apologies to Frazee or whoever’s next in line, that’s a small price for the organization to pay.
I don’t believe that’s Lamoriello’s line of thinking, though. I think his love for Brodeur is the driving force here, which is cause for some concern. Personally, I hope this is a one-off, a unique relationship that doesn’t signal a philosophical change in Lamoriello. But if he finds himself having a harder time letting players go, a harder time viewing them as people in day-to-day life but as assets when the time comes to put together the best possible team, a harder time making moves with the analytical iciness that has characterized his personnel decisions for the past 25 years, then it might be time for Sweet Lou to consider following his goalie into retirement.