November 25, 2010

Hell Has Frozen over: Hedberg Is more Valuable to the Devils than Brodeur

I don’t know what’s sadder in New Jersey, that perennial Vezina Trophy-contender Martin Brodeur currently has a save percentage barely over .900, or that his back-up Johan Hedberg needed a shutout streak of over 100 minutes to raise his to .896.

"Usurped by a guy nicknameed 'Moose'? Don't make me laugh!"
Truth be told, it’s probably the latter, but what’s perhaps saddest concerning the Devils’ goaltending situation is that Hedberg is now over .500 with a 3-2-1 record, while Brodeur is 4-10-1. Everyone knew the Devils signing Hedberg to a two-year deal this off-season was a sign of the times (i.e. Brodeur not being able to carry as much of the load as he used to), but this is getting ridiculous. With Brodeur out with a sore elbow for a few more days, Hedberg has actually been a rock in nets and has helped to solidify the team’s shaky defensive situation by posting a shutout against the Washington Capitals and then helping his team to beat the Calgary Flames 2-1 on Wednesday

All of a sudden the Devils are playing decently and can proudly lay claim to their first winning streak of the season, albeit one of a modest two games. Okay, maybe not-so proudly lay claim to, but the point is if ever there was a sign that things were turning around for the 7-13-2 Devils, this is it.

Things had gotten so bad that when Ilya Kovalchuk scored a game-winning goal a few weeks ago, analysts were saying how impressive a victory it was for the Devils and how important a goal it was for Kovy. People conveniently turned a blind eye to the fact that the Devils were playing the Edmonton Oilers at the time, one of only two teams currently with a worse record than them, and that the goal came on a power play in overtime no less. Not scoring and winning the game under that set of circumstances would have been akin to a jonesing drug addict not getting his fix despite having his dealer on speed dial and a huge wad of cash in his pocket after ripping off the convenience store down the street. Add in the fact that back-up Devan Dubnyk was in nets for the Oil (Brodeur was for the Devils) and a victory like that should not only be marginalized, it should be stricken from the records out of sheer principle.

So, no, that win wasn’t the turning point for which Devils fans were looking, especially since the team went on to lose three straight after that. This current winning binge has shown far greater signs of life in the team than Kovalchuk did after that goal was scored, which was perhaps an even greater sign of how far the team’s fallen from grace, because in essence it was like talking smack to a baby after stealing the lollipop from straight out of his mouth. But when things are bad I suppose you overemphasize the good and look for the silver lining in the raincloud even if you’re stuck under your leaking roof during a storm and can’t see past the raindrops drowning both the outside and inside of your window.

At this point, it’s clear hell has frozen over with Hedberg making a case to be the go-to guy from here on out. I’m not saying it should happen or that it’s going to, only that there’s a case to be made much to that effect. The Devils are seven points out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern conference and seeing as the Montreal Canadiens earned the eighth seed last year with 88 points, the Devils would hypothetically need 72 points in the remaining 60 games. It’s not impossible, but is surely improbable for a team that has scored less than two goals per game so far.

Brodeur’s career has been circling the drain for some time, with his seemingly being unable to put together one of his signature playoff runs in recent years. It used to be that he would fade in the stretch run, everyone would count him out, then he would go on a tear to start the following season, everyone would think he was back, and then the cycle would repeat. Now he hasn’t even been able to start off half-decently. Granted an inexperienced defensive corps has something to do with that, but so does the undeniable fact that he’s 38.

"This cannot possibly end well."
Meanwhile, Hedberg is your prototypical late-bloomer. He really only got his start in the NHL at 28 and he’s always been an afterthought on whatever team for which he’s played only to eventually make a run, however feeble and ultimately unsuccessful an attempt, at the starting job. Last year, when he was 36, he posted his best season ever, going 21-16-6 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. However, now he’s 37, and even if he is by some miracle able to convince head coach John MacLean that he’s the better choice for the team right now, he’s still in the twilight of his career no matter how you look at it.

As such, it’s good to look at what’s in the team’s pipeline right now from a goaltending perspective, which amounts to one prospect, singular, in Jeff Frazee, who’s only mustered a .895 save percentage and .500 record playing for the Albany Devils in the AHL this season. The bad news is obvious. The good news is he should fit right in with Hedberg and Brodeur should the need ever arise to promote him.

Maybe it’s time general manager Lou Lamoriello start taking an active interest in searching for Brodeur’s heir. If he spent one fourth of the time he did trying to sign Kovalchuk last summer, the team would be in good shape moving forward, but maybe he doesn’t need to. The Vancouver Canucks currently have Cory Schneider playing one game to every four of Roberto Luongo’s. Surely he could pry him off Mike Gillis’s cold, not-so-dead hands for the right price. He wouldn’t necessarily turn the team around, but he would serve as a stop-gap measure of sorts, because at this point Brodeur is not only (figuratively) bleeding out his elbow but his greying hair as well. Right now everyone in Jersey should be able to relate. Even the bald Lamoriello. Especially Lamoriello.

"This cannot possibly end badly."

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