The condolences started coming in just after noon. E-mails that simply said "sorry" followed by a link to Tom Gulitti's breaking news about New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who will miss up to four months after "surgery Thursday morning to repair a torn distal biceps tendon in his left elbow."
JP, a Capitals fan, sent one with the subject header "Vomit." Derek Felix, a longtime colleague and a New York Rangers fan, sent an IM of sympathy before penning a blog titled "A Ranger fan's view on a Devil fan's eternal Hell." Hockey friends and non-hockey friends acknowledged the news and its impact on yours truly, a lifelong Devils fan. By mid-afternoon, so much empathy had come my way, I started ending all my e-mails with "in lieu of flowers ..."
It reminded me of 2003, when the high expectations for the New York Jets proved as fragile as quarterback Chad Pennington's hand in a preseason game against the Giants. The Jets stumbled to 1-4, and finished 6-10.
It also reminded me of the last life-altering injury to a significant Devils player: When Scott Stevens was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome in January 2007. The tantalizing possibility of his heroic return to the lineup haunted the team into the playoffs; they needed him more than ever in a first-round battle against the Philadelphia Flyers, but Stevens couldn't answer the bell. It was his final season in the NHL.
Brodeur said this afternoon on a media conference call that it's not an injury that will linger or reoccur; basically, that this isn't career-threatening. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
Marty sounded upbeat, because he's perpetually upbeat. Devils fans are born cynics, both due to our systemic inferiority complexes and Jersey breeding. So what, exactly, does this injury and absence do to the Devils and the rest of the NHL? I can think of 10 significant aftereffects.
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1. The Devils' defense has lost its safety net. As we said in the season preview, this continues to be one of the most underwhelming collections of defensemen Brodeur had ever played behind, defensively and especially offensively. The combination of Marty's time-tested abilities as a third defenseman and the team's defensive system carried this unit to fifth in the League in goals against last season. The team is currently eighth in the League; it's difficult to conceive that ranking improving over the next three months.
The biggest adjustment will be in the puck-handling for the defensemen. They'll have to do more chasing of pucks, make more first passes than when Brodeur's back there. The Devils have more puck-handling defensemen than bangers on the blueline right now; winning pucks will be an issue, but bringing them out of the zone shouldn't.
2. Either Kevin Weekes or Scott Clemmensen must be the answer. GM Lou Lamoriello has already told Gulitti that the Devils don't plan on trading for a goaltender, so one of these two (or both) will hold the fort until Brodeur returns.
Weekes played outstanding hockey last night against the Buffalo Sabres, but doesn't have one iota of the puck-handling skills that Brodeur has, which affects both the defense and the offense. Clemmensen's puck-handling has improved; the keeper who gets the most minutes will be with one that fits the system the best.
Brodeur said Weekes has been "a good sport" playing the backup role; he's going to have to be better than good in Marty's absence. Beat writer Rich Chere said today, "Kevin Weekes could be a No. 1 goalie on several NHL teams." Uh, name'em, chief.
3. Sutter and the system. After watching the pathetic offensive output from the Devils against Buffalo, the last thing Coach Brent Sutter should do is overcompensate for Brodeur's absence by reeling in the scorers and overplaying the checking lines, trying to win every night 1-0 or 2-1 in a shootout. There's nothing hyperbolic about saying this is Sutter's greatest challenge as an NHL coach. He needs to strike a balance between extra help for the new keeper and finding some kind of consistent offense from the team's forwards. That ain't easy when your offense looks different every night.
4. Get, and stay, healthy. Brodeur's is the most significant of several injuries currently plaguing the Devils. Defenseman Andy Greene, center Brian Rolston and center Bobby Holik are all on the shelf; defenseman Paul Martin is battling through an "upper body injury." This team is wafer-thin on defense and can't afford injuries to the blueline. Getting Rolston back and contributing is now a priority; he's started skating again, coming back from a high ankle sprain.
5. The Devils at the deadline. The NHL trade deadline is March 4. That will be about four months after Brodeur's surgery, so the Devils should either have him back or understand the timetable for his return. They don't have much cap room; but perhaps this injury will serve as a chilling reminder that if the team is near the playoffs and Brodeur is healthy, the window of opportunity is still thankfully open -- for now.
6. If the Devils make the postseason, Marty will finally be rested. Complete, utter silver-lining B.S. from a Devils fan in shock, but here goes: If the knock on Brodeur in the postseason was that he didn't get enough rest during the regular season, then he should be all-world come playoff time. (Assuming he doesn't rehab his bicep with a mix of glazed and Boston Crème.)
7. The Vezina race has been restarted. James Mirtle had the early Vezina candidates as Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres, Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens, which might be news to the Western Conference. Brodeur is a candidate every year, but obviously won't be this year. This would seem to help Henrik Lundqvist the most, although obviously there are other keepers in the East that will still cipher votes away from the Rangers' keeper. (Provided he doesn't follow his New York/New Jersey goalie brethren to the IR.)
8. Are the records on hold? At the very least, NHL.com might want to reconsider the Brodeur Watch. He's eight wins away from passing Patrick Roy (551) for the all-time mark in the NHL, and he's six shutouts away from passing Terry Sawchuk (98) for the all-time lead in shutouts. From Marty the Optimist: "Hopefully, I'll come back healthy and with enough games to be able to reach it this season." Sawchuk, obviously, will wait.
9. The attendance problem. Paul Kukla didn't like the attendance last night at The Rock (10,567), but that's a Monday night in October or early November against Buffalo for the Devils. Always has been. But the real impact of Brodeur's injury is the timing of it: The next month is when Devils ticket packages are purchased for the holidays as gifts, and the attendance gradually increases for non-rivalry games going into the new year. Will Brodeur's injury have a dampening effect on those sales? More to the point: If the Devils go into a tailspin without him, will 10,500 become the gate number for games in February? Is this the, gulp, future of the Devils' attendance in a post-Marty, post-annual playoff contention world?
10. Ditch the mask. Finally, there can be no doubt any longer: The egomaniacal "MB 30" mask that Brodeur has adopted this year insulted the Hockey Gods, has bad juju and must be thrown into the fires of Mount Doom. This is essential.