As any intelligent general manager or head coach will tell you, the most important piece to the successful franchise puzzle is a goaltender. As any hockey analyst or hockey enthusiast will emphasize, the key to a long and triumphant playoff run is also the netminder. Every team, through the entry draft, trades or free agency, has attempted to fill this position with the best candidate possible. To some owners, it is the difference between making the playoffs and generating capital to keep the franchise afloat, or playing golf during the summer months in a different market city. Some teams have had more luck than other clubs, while a select few have been outright blessed. The New Jersey Devils are obviously one of those teams. With Martin Brodeur as the cornerstone of the franchise, New Jersey has won 2 cups, 3 conference crowns and several divisional titles. This future Hall of Fame member has produced some impressive numbers in eight full seasons as the number one goalie including 2.21 goals against average in the regular season and a 1.88 during the playoffs, 55 shutouts, and 324 victories in 581 starts.
As the importance of an excellent marquee goalie may sometimes be over emphasized, the acquisition and development of a reliable and steady back-up goalie is sometimes overshadowed, forgotten, and in many cases, outright ignored. The loss of a superstar netminder, to either injury or free agency combined with not having a capable replacement can ruin a team for a playoff run or an entire season. For example, since Ed Belfour departed Chicago, the Blackhawks have been unable to replace him with a substitute who was just as competent. More recently, The Rangers went from a potential playoff berth to firing coach Ron Low when Mike Richter when down late in the season and young and inexperienced Dan Blackburn was unable to provide what only a seasoned veteran could. Also, Toronto avoided near disaster and an early playoff exit as Curtis Joseph relieved career second stringer Corey Schwab and rejuvenated a shaky Leafs team that was a couple of victories away from the Stanley Cup finals.
But what about the Devils? What if the Devils lost Brodeur for one month, a playoff run, or an entire season? Who would step up and try to fill Marty’s big skates and lead the team the way Brodeur has?
Considering how Brodeur has appeared in 72 games on average over the last seven years, this is a lot to ask of an aged veteran or inexperienced rookie with limited NHL games over the last couple of years. After the recent second retirement of Beezer, Devils management asked themselves if the organization should promote within or look elsewhere. There were several possibilities, both within and outside of the club.
Without any doubt, 1999 first round draft pick Ari Ahonen will make an impact in the NHL, but it won’t be next year. The AHL rookie will play another season in Albany starting next fall under the supervision and guidance of assistant coach Chris Terreri. Despite his numbers, Ari had an excellent first season in North America. Although he only managed to collect six victories in 34 starts, his save percentage was an impressive .914 and earned a goals against average of 3.02. With J.F. Damphousse out of the picture, this will allow for more room in Albany and Ahonen to make more starts and appearances. There is no doubt that the Devils will be preparing for the future and make the young Finnish star the number one goalie in their top affiliate. Unless Ari were showcased for a possible trade or called up due to extensive injuries, do not expect him to put on a Devils sweater for at least another year.
The likely candidate for last year’s back up position was J. F. Damphousse, but that is not the case for this year. On paper, Damphousse was the odds on favorite to beat out only Federic Henry who was the only likely challenger, but both stumbled. Damphousse had a tough training camp and an even more difficult pre-season. He allowed weak goals, made poor decisions and had the Devils’ brain trust questioning his potential as an NHL goalie. The 1997 first round draft pick started the season in Albany but was called up in December. Most of the time, J.F. had a front row seat watching Brodeur and the Devils limp along in the regular season. Eventually he got his first start and appeared in six games total. J.F. managed to win just one game and lose three. Eventually, Beezer returned after the Olympic break and Damphousse was once again banished to the AHL, where he only appeared in 18 games and posted a .342 GAA and a .902 save percentage. Damphousse’s poor showing last season left a bad taste in the Devils organization and permanently scared his chances at an NHL career as he was packaged in the Petr Sykora trade to Anaheim.
Scott Clemmensen, the eighth round draft pick in 1997, finished a fine career at Boston College, with Brian Gionta by winning a National Championship. He progressed well during his tenure with the Eagles but was known to be soft late in the high-pressure games. For example, in the finals of his Junior Year against North Dakota, Scott allowed a weak goal, which gave the Fighting Sioux the championship. He shook that reputation and came through in his senior year. Scott also came through during his first professional training camp with the Devils and beat out everybody for the number two spot in the organization behind Marty. Although he was up for several months, he only saw action in two games; the first was the season opener as Brodeur got shelled for six goals against Washington. Splitting time with two other goalies in Albany, Clemmensen received quality minutes and valuable experience. More than likely, Scott will share time with Ari Ahonen in Albany this coming season, but he will be challenged by newly signed Matus Kostur. Don’t be surprised if Scott turns some heads again this year because he would really like to get back to the Devils and make his first NHL start.
Ultimately, the decision that Lou Lamoriello made was that the organization needed some outside assistance to allow the younger prospects to develop. There were a couple of possibilities on the free agency market, but former Devil Corey Schwab was the best choice. After being traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for using Tommy Salo’s face as a punching bag, Corey saw limited action in the NHL and was sent to the IHL and the AHL on several different occasions over the subsequent years. Last season Schwab redeemed himself as a legitimate back up goal tender when Curtis Joseph went down for a long stretch. In 30 games with the Leafs, Corey went 12-10-5 with a 2.73 GAA and kept Toronto in playoff contention until their number one goalie returned. Corey Schwab re-signed with the Devils to ultimately replace the Beezer as the backup goal tender. Brodeur will play at least 70 games, but New Jersey has several back to back games this coming season where Schwab will see action. With the addition of Corey Schwab, coach Pat Burns will have the confidence to sit Brodeur and not worry about giving up soft goals. So, at least for this upcoming season, Schwab will be sitting in the shadows of a future Hall of Famer and ready to be called upon, if needed.