The National Hockey League is perhaps the professional sports league that is perhaps most willing to appeal to authority and defer to experience than any other. You can say it’s to do with how much hockey treasures its past, and maybe that’s true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not detrimental to the sport itself.
We got a pretty good case-in-point example of this when the Devils, predictably, gave Martin Brodeur the start in the Devils’ first-ever outdoor game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. It was very much a “thanks for everything” moment, and perhaps the team didn’t really care so much about the end result. The guy’s been the face of the franchise almost since he came into the league, so of course they were going to give him the start in that particular game. It was a Special Experience, and all that.
Of course, the fact that Brodeur got bombed for six goals against on 21 shots, bringing his save percentage for this, his age-41 season, below .900 for what has to be the first time ever after 28 games in his career. To judge any goaltender on a .714 save percentage in any 40-minute stretch is of course unfair, but this is in fact reflective of a trend that has plagued the Devils all year.
Asked why he was starting Brodeur, who went into the game with a .905 save percentage, over Cory Schneider, who was on the bench with his sitting at .928, coach Peter DeBoer said nothing about the experience or how much he’s meant to the franchise. What he said, instead, was baseless and ridiculous: “I’m not a big stats guy. I think those numbers are misleading.”
They are, in fact, not. The whole reason the Devils went out and got Schneider over the summer is that Brodeur is, at his age, very clearly on his last legs. This is likely his final season, and you can make a reasonable argument that even now he’s long overstayed his welcome. The number of times his save percentage in the last three seasons (.903, .908, and .901, respectively) even approached league average is zero, and this is the logical denouement, a bottoming-out so spectacular that it screams for a new solution. The fix is simple: Start Schneider more often than the guy who clearly doesn’t have “it” any more. His save percentage dropped after his relief appearance at Yankee Stadium, by one point, to his career average of .927. Which, you’ll note, is as more above league average than Brodeur’s is below it.
But Brodeur has played in 28 games to Schneider’s 26, and it’s very clear why: Nostalgia. No one could look at these performances over the course of a season and say the numbers are misleading. They, in fact, are telling you everything you need to know. Even if you want to say the team plays better in front of Schneider (likely not the case), then don’t you owe it to yourself to not continually trot Brodeur out there more often?
The Devils are, as of this writing, sitting on 55 points from 53 games, just a point out of a playoff spot behind third-in-the-Metro Columbus. However, there are two teams between them and that spot, as Philadelphia has 56 points from the same number of games, and Carolina has the same number of points from two fewer games. All of which is to say that two points are extremely important to the Devils right now, or at least should be. For DeBoer to rely on the plainly worse goaltender is an abdication of his actual responsibility as the steward of this team, and it’s as simple as that.
However, the quotes that came from Brodeur in the immediate aftermath of his being positively shelled are extremely telling.
“I told Pete if you want to put Schneids for the experience in a game like that,” Brodeur said. “I asked him. If you want, I’m OK with it. Maybe he would’ve done it anyway.”
Great stuff. This is like a No. 5 pitcher calling his manager out to the mound and saying, “Hey I know I walked nine of the first 14 batters I faced today but I’m cool if you wanna bring in someone else.” And then the manager uses his ace in mop-up duty. The combination hubris-slash-delusion it takes to say something like that with a straight face not only to the media but to your immediate superior, to whom you’re (supposed to be) accountable for your performance, must be amazing.
Then there were the excuses from Brodeur for why he was so bad in this one. They include but were not limited to the spectacle (“I’m sure [the number of odd-man rushes conceded] never would have happened in a regular game.”), the temperature (“It’s tough, especially when you’re playing in a game like that. I couldn’t close my glove or catch a puck. It was frozen.”), and the surface (“It was the worst ice I’ve ever played hockey on. As it went on, it was worse and worse.”) I understand it was like 24 degrees when the puck dropped, but Brodeur was fishing the puck out of net so often he should have built a shanty.
But again, that delusion is occurring on a mass level. The reason Brodeur felt within his rights to let his coach know that he would accept being pulled after allowing six goals on 21 shots is that he’s very clearly the one calling the shots. DeBoer, like Brodeur himself, is very much accustomed to making excuses for why a 41-year-old man can’t play a professional sport as well as a 27-year-old one.
DeBoer should be in the business not of soothing the ego of an over-the-hill subaverage goaltender, but rather trying to get his team into the playoffs. By starting Brodeur more often than he does Schneider, he’s simply not doing that. Tyler Dellow dug into the numbers and found that the use of the legendary, arguably-best-ever goaltender as often as he does, he has cost his team between two and three points in the standings. That number will continue to grow as long as Brodeur continues getting every other start.
At the end of the season, the Devils will be left to sort through the ashes of another missed playoff appearance, and wonder if getting Brodeur into 20 more games than he should have played was really worth it.