Ever since Martin Brodeur took the Devils to the Conference Finals in 93-94 against the Rangers, goaltending has never been a major problem in New Jersey. Brodeur has proven to be very durable and can easily play 70+ games every year. However, Brodeur’s contract is up at the end of this season, and he will command high dollar and deservedly so. But with so many goaltending prospects in the organization, how long and for how much will Lamoriello want to lock up Martin?
For the first time since Mike Dunham backed up Brodeur, it looks like the Devils are ready to let a youngster learn the ropes as Brodeur’s caddy. From 1993 to 2001, Chris Terreri, Corey Schwab, Mike Dunham and John Vanbiesbrouck all served time as Brodeur’s back-up. The team would like to have kept Dunham, but expansion killed any chances of the Devils being able to hold on to him. Dunham has gone on to become a very solid goaltender for the Nashville Predators and has a very bright future ahead. But lets forget the past and look ahead to next year and beyond.
The main candidate for the back-up spot next year is Jean-Francois Damphousse. Damphousse was the Devils first round pick, 24th overall in 1997 and may be the most NHL ready of any of the Devils netminding prospects. After a sub-par ’98-99 season with Albany, he rebounded in both ’99-00 and ’00-01 with very solid seasons. In ’00-01 he took over the starting job with the Rats and almost lead them to a playoff spot after the team went through a horrible first 2 months of the season. When the Devils drafted him, he was very thin and wiry. He has since added 10-15 pounds and it wouldn’t hurt him to put on a little more. He plays a butterfly-style, as per usual with QMJHL products, and is very quick and athletic. If he gets the nod as Brodeur’s back-up, expect the organization to ease him in to the NHL by playing him against weaker teams and by limiting him to between 10-15 games.
As good as a prospect as Damphousse is, the Devils have very high hopes for their #1 goalie of the future, Ari Ahonen. The Finnish born Ahonen has All-Star written all over him. When the Devils drafted Ahonen with their 1st round pick 27th overall in ’99, many Devils observers were surprised to see the Devils take Ahonen because goaltending wasn’t a major priorty, especially considering the fact that Damphousse was drafted in the first round two years earlier. If you look at it now though, it looks like the Devils had the steal of the first round. Ari has tremendous potential and has an outside chance at the back-up spot. He was rated the #5 prospect by THN’s Future Watch and is currently #1 on our site. He is a classic-butterfly style goalie who engulfs the bottom of the goal with ease and uses his stick very effectively. If you are going to beat Ahonen, you need to beat him high. He has cat-like reflexes and sees the ice very well. You can’t rattle him either as he is cool under pressure. He would be better off playing his first season in North America in Albany, but if he has a good training camp, the Devils will not hesitate to bring him in as the back-up. Many feel he is more NHL ready then Damphousse is, but the Devils won’t want to rush him. We will soon find out how NHL ready he is.
Other goaltenders in the system who are considered long shots to be the back-up now are Scott Clemmensen, Boston College’s All-Time winningest goalie and shut-out leader. Fredric Henry, who may be out of luck with Ahonen and Clemmensen turning pro and Slovakian Matus Kostur, who was drafted in the 5th round of 2000.
It seems that the back-up job is Damphousse’s to lose, but don’t be surprised to see Ahonen give him a challenge for that role. Ahonen has more potential to be #1 than Damphousse does, but Damphousse has more pro experience and therefore may be the better option as a back-up this year. Ahonen may be better off playing a full year in North America before seeing minimal action as Martin’s back-up. There are many good reasons for both to be Martin’s back-up, and vice-versa for not being the back-up. In the next two years, this situation may be comparable to the Sabres goaltending situation of last year. Hasek, Biron and Noronen is a very similar situation to Brodeur, Damphousse and Ahonen. Could Brodeur, like Hasek, be dealt a few years from now? It may be very possible. It will be interesting to see what happens at this seasons training camp, but one thing is for sure. The Future of the Devils goaltending lies with Ahonen and Damphousse.