NEWARK, N.J. – Hockey purists can debate what style Martin Brodeur employs.
Is he the last of the standup goaltenders, a practitioner of the half butterfly, an athletic hybrid or simply a “fabulous freak” as one former netminder put it?
It doesn’t matter on the ice. When someone takes a shot, chances are Brodeur is going to stop it – whether flopping like Dominik Hasek, in the butterfly of Patrick Roy, using the paddle of his stick like Felix Potvin or just being Marty, possibly the best athlete to play goaltender.
“Marty is like an elite shortstop in baseball,” said Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello. “They are fundamentally sound but they make the difficult plays whatever way it takes to be made.”
Brodeur has made his share of plays over the past 15 seasons, helping the Devils win three Stanley Cups while capturing four Vezina awards as the league’s top goaltender.
The 36-year-old Montreal native is on the verge of surpassing every guy who has strapped on the pads and chest protector and donned the mask. With two more wins, Brodeur will break Roy’s record for career victories (551), becoming the winningest goaltender in league history.
“It is weird hearing something like that,” Brodeur said. “I can’t control how people think about me, especially with this. It is something pretty significant for goaltenders and I am not going to deny it. But in our sport, you are judged by performance, how you play tomorrow. This goes outside that bubble a bit, because it is a record. It is a great accomplishment.”
Brodeur stopped 26 shots in a 5-2 victory over Phoenix on Thursday night for his 550th victory. He can tie Roy on Saturday when the Devils play the Montreal Canadiens, the team Brodeur grew up rooting for.
Brodeur might be the most durable goaltender to play the game. Except for strike shortened seasons and lockouts, he has appeared in at least 67 games since the 1995-96 season. During that span, he has won at least 34 games a year, including a league-record 48 in 2006-07.
The streak will end this year because Brodeur missed 50 games after tearing a biceps in his left elbow in November. He returned to action late last month.
“I am impressed how he has played so many games per year for such a long time and at such a high level as he does,” Roy said in a telephone interview. “It’s fantastic. It’s amazing. He has such a great approach to the game. He always gets along with the expectations and the pressure. He makes it look so easy every night, and if someone knows how tough it is, it’s me.”
Not bad for a player the Devils traded down to get in the 1990 draft.
Calgary wanted goaltender Trevor Kidd that year and didn’t think it would get him with the 20th pick overall. So they called Lamoriello and worked out a deal for New Jersey’s pick, the 11th overall.
The Devils also liked youngsters Brodeur and Mike Dunham in the draft, and felt both would be around later. They eventually got Brodeur with the 20th pick overall and later picked up Dunham as well.
“If we knew what he would turn into, we never would have traded down and taken the chance,” a chuckling Lamoriello said.
If you’ve ever seen Brodeur play, or watched him being interviewed or had a chance to talk to him in person, you realize that Brodeur is special.
There is almost always a smile on his face – win, lose, or just bumping into him out on the street. Stop him and he’ll talk about anything, even though he prefers to talk about golf.
“He might be the most humble superstar I have ever been around,” said Devils defenceman Mike Mottau.
On the ice, that smile doesn’t disappear. It just masks great focus and a fierce competitor.
“He does not want to get scored upon at any point, whether in a game, practice, the drill before practice, the drill after practice,” longtime teammate Jay Pandolfo said. “That is what has made him so good. He is that competitive all the time. He never takes a shot off. There are times you think you have him beat, and he’ll make a ridiculous save, put his glove behind his back and catch it, throw his stick in the air and knock it down, you name it.”
There is a certain irony to Brodeur being a goaltender. When he first started playing as a youngster, he was a forward. He turned to goaltending so he could play for two teams and get twice as much action. The following year he became a full-time goaltender, combining athleticism with natural ability.
“It’s not like they took a kid and said this is the way you play goal,” said former goaltender Chico Resch, a Devils’ television analyst. “It developed naturally for him. It wasn’t like he had to make adjustments. I mean he made some adjustments, but those were tweaks to take it to another level.”
Resch, who described Brodeur as a “fabulous freak,” said his development as a goaltender was akin to the perfect storm.
He has spent almost two decades learning under goaltending mentor Jacques Caron, who developed his skating. Watch him in net and he seems to dance on the ice.
He also honed his own skills, endlessly watching videotapes, not only of opponents but other goalies.
Watching Hasek, he ignored the flopping, and learned how to keep his head and shoulders level in following the puck.
Watching Potvin, who was drafted the same year, he learned how to put the paddle of his stick on the ice to fend off shots through a screen and to redirect rebounds.
A visit to Roy’s goaltending coach taught him how to get to his feet faster and easier when using the butterfly, a style in which the goaltender drops to the ice with both pads to cover as much area as possible in front of the net.
“Anytime I think something will be good for my game I will steal from them,” Brodeur said. “Hey, fair game.”
Lamoriello calls it the difference between the good and great player.
“What you are talking about is why he is good and why there are coaches better than others,” Lamoriello said. “It’s that they study and evaluate and they are not afraid to take from somebody what is good and put it into their own mind and body. That says it all.”
While Brodeur’s style has him standing up, he many times uses a half-butterfly, putting one knee and pad on the ice. He covers the same area as a butterfly but is more maneuverable and it leaves his glove hand and stick at the ready at the ready for poke checks while covering the upper part of the net.
Centre Bobby Holik, who returned to the Devils as a free agent this season, said he learned more about Brodeur playing against him.
“You see how closely he follows the game,” Holik said. “He always seems to be ahead of the game.”
That was apparent during a recent game against the Flyers. Simon Gagne cut across the crease with the puck and noticed Mike Richards to his right for what seemed would be a tap-in goal.
The only problem for Gagne was that Brodeur noticed something else. He saw defenceman Colin White’s stick on the ice, leaving Gagne only a chance for a weak backhander.
“When I saw that, I looked and saw Richards and I knew he was going there,” said Brodeur. “I stopped moving toward him and moved across. It’s kind of cheating, but it’s reading the play.”
The result was a sliding save.
Many players say there is no book on how to beat Brodeur, and with good reason. Brodeur tries not to do the same thing on each save.
“It’s my way of looking at hockey,” he said. “I don’t like to be the same way over and over. At the end, people will start picking you apart if you do the same thing over and over.”
There are some things that never change. Brodeur works on his fundamentals every practice and game. He stresses patience, working on his balance, positioning – keeping his head and shoulders level – and always knowing where he is on the ice.
“When I get scored on, I always look where I am,” he said. “All the time: ‘Was I in bad position? Was I in good position?’ You can assess how I play when I do that.”
Devils coach Brent Sutter grins when asked about the upcoming record.
“To me everyone is making a big deal about breaking this record, and rightly so,” he said. “But you forget where is he going to be at the end of his career? That’s going to be a pretty phenomenal thing, even more so than the record. When he decides he doesn’t want to play anymore, where’s he going to be at? You’re talking about something that is probably pretty untouchable.”