The Goalie Guild

Martin Brodeur and the Game of Thrones

A few weeks ago, I spent some time chatting with former NHL goaltender Kevin Weekes. For nearly an hour, we discussed his exciting new apparel and style brand, I Have No 5-Hole. Afterwards, we spoke about the one thing everyone loves to hate — the NHL lockout.

Since every NHL goalie’s situation is inherently different, there’s no rhyme or reason to the obstacles they face. Some will handle the time off better than others, and experience goes a long way in that regard. But generally speaking, it’s the aging veterans, the sparsely-used backups, and the guys in the final year of their contracts that are suffering the most.

And while some might ultimately benefit from the extra time off (Jonathan Quick and Mark Dekanich come to mind due to past injuries), for most of the goalie union, like it is for all players, this lockout is spirit-crushing.

On the surface, goalies that landed gigs in Europe also seem to gain a significant advantage over those left without a place to play. But even they face the pressure of having to play well to make it count. If they struggle, that inner confidence could erode, making the eventual re-adjustment back to the NHL even more difficult.

Photo Copyright: Tom Turk - Piratical Photography

They also run the risk suffering an injury, which is always a concern (hello, Rick DiPietro).

Ilya Bryzgalov is being scratched from the lineup and getting distracted by more media-oriented nonsense. Ondrej Pavelec was struggling with Liberec to the point he may no longer be playing for them. Viktor Fasth is playing in a league way below his talent level for Tingsryd in the Allsvenskan. Anton Khudobin is struggling with Atlant, and although it’s not necessarily lockout related, Mike Murphy was cut from Spartak Moscow.

It’s just a mess right now, and there’s no end in sight.

While chatting with Weekes, I proposed to him that Martin Brodeur was negatively affected by the lockout more than any other NHL goalie. He’s only getting older, he has yet to begin pursuing a job in Europe, and his play over the past few regular seasons has left much to be desired. I also wondered how durable he would be after a lengthy break when I read Pierre LeBrun’s recent story that revealed Brodeur broke a finger.

“It’s tough to say individually, but off the top of my head, I would agree with you,” Weekes said regarding Brodeur. “The good thing for him is that the Devils had a long post-season run, so right now he has an opportunity to rest and regenerate, and I think there’s a benefit to that. But at the same time, the challenge is that Marty doesn’t really skate in the off-season. That ends up having a bigger impact on you the older you get. Of course he wants to stay fresh by not skating much, but it’s almost as if that makes it tougher for him to start when the lockout ends. He has to find his groove, and it may take him longer to do that. So the longer the lockout goes, unless he plays in a few of those charity games or ends up going to play in Europe, I think it’s going to be very difficult for him.”

As I was listening to Weekes, I tucked his comment about charity games in the back of my mind. Afterwards, I listed the pros and cons of veteran goalies playing in a charity game, and whether or not it could legitimately help them. I also recently attended Defending the Blue Line’s charity game at Mariucci Arena, and while I supported the event, I also realized first-hand that Niklas Backstrom definitely gained some positives by participating.

In one corner, a game is a game is a game. Whether it’s for charity or it’s the first preseason tilt following the lockout, there are many ways in which a goalie can mentally “trick” themselves into treating a charity game with a higher purpose.

If there are referees and rosters and intermissions, it’s a chance to emulate some of the things they do mentally and physically in a real NHL game. It’s a chance to shake off some rust, execute some minor tweaks or adjustments made over the summer, and simply get a feel for the puck again. It’s also a chance to track pucks and get comfortable in new pads, regardless of the speed or the purpose or the atmosphere.

In the other corner, nothing in a charity game can even come remotely close to matching the pressure or skill of an NHL game. It’s a totally different competitive dynamic, and no matter how good a goalie might be at “tricking” themselves into taking a charity game “seriously” for an hour or two, the pace on the ice limits the benefits. Simply put, nothing replaces the realism of an actual NHL game.

Photo Copyright: Justin Goldman – The Goalie Guild

Backstrom also played in a charity game a few days earlier in Chicago, so beyond being a great guy that donated some of his time to support the individual causes, there was certainly a side-benefit to his participation. He hasn’t landed a gig in Europe yet, and he also slightly tweaked an ankle in October…and oh yeah, he’s in the final year of his contract with the Wild.

Those things alone make a couple of charity games a benefit for Backstrom in the long run.

So what were some of the pros and cons to Weekes’ lockout experience back in 2004-05? First of all, he was an unrestricted free agent after a strong 2003-04 campaign with Carolina, so in terms of  salary, the lockout was detrimental because he didn’t earn a contract that was truly reflective of the marketplace.

Once he did sign a new two-year deal with the Rangers, staying in shape and practicing as much as possible was his only lockout antidote. And even though the start of his career with the Rangers was positive, an injury (bruised ankle from the net falling on him) ultimately opened the door for a rookie named Henrik Lundqvist to take over the starting role.

Sure enough, during the lockout, Lundqvist was still playing for Frolunda. In 44 games, he posted a 1.79 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage. In the playoffs, he posted a 1.05 GAA and .962 SV% en route to a Gold Medal and the Honken Trophy as the league’s best goaltender.

But while Lundqvist was blossoming into an elite netminder, Weekes was confined to nothing but drills and weight lifting.

“From a practice standpoint, fortunately I was able to skate with Sudsie Maharaj back home, in our natural off-season routine. But how long we had to continue that routine was the biggest issue,” Weekes explained. “We tapered it at times, then picked it back up, going hard three days one week, then two days the next week, and then combining that with my off-ice training. But it finally got to the point where we were like, what are we doing here? Where are we going with this thing? So mentally, it really plays on you.”

Coming off the best season of his NHL career with Carolina, and because he had signed a new contract with a new organization, Weekes didn’t want to play in Europe and deal with the risk of injury. It simply wasn’t worth it.

“We didn’t know who was going to be a casualty from playing overseas, or if owners were going to be upset if you went over to play [in Europe], so a lot of us were really cautious about doing that,” Weekes said. “But all the while, other goalies were playing. Cam Ward was playing. Henrik Lundqvist was playing. A lot of younger guys that came into the league shortly thereafter had an extra year of hockey under their belt, and they were able to improve.”

The more I discussed the lockout with Weekes, the more obvious the lesson became; the hockey world waits on no goalie. During a lockout, hundreds of goalies in other leagues are closing the gap on the competition, and if an NHL’er doesn’t do every little thing in their power to stay sharp, they’re at a significant disadvantage due to the fact other goalies are gaining experience.

After digesting Weekes’ words and doing some statistical research on the lockout’s influence on NHL goalies, I came to the conclusion that a lockout is like their very own Game of Thrones. There’s only 30 thrones out there, and 30 more apprenticeships, but bloodthirsty challengers exist all over the world.

Photo Copyright: Tom Turk – Piratical Photography

“The music doesn’t stop for you, and that’s the frustrating thing — it’s a game of musical chairs for the goalie position,” Weekes said. “You want to be able to make sure you have a seat, but unfortunately, you may not have the same seat when the lockout ends, and in some cases, some guys won’t get a seat at all.”

In regards to this lockout, some of those guys could very well be Nikolai Khabibulin, Brent Johnson, Dwayne Roloson, and Brian Boucher, just to name a few. Fortunately for Weekes, when the 2004-05 lockout ended, he had claimed a seat atop the Rangers’ throne.

After hearing what Weekes went through in the last lockout, and knowing Lundqvist closed the gap in a hurry, I wanted to know what he considered to be the toughest part of getting back into the groove again. Was it tracking the puck, the physical fitness, or dealing with the crazy rule changes?

“Honestly, the toughest thing was the confidence. It’s like, oh my god I haven’t done this in so long, what do I do?! So really it was being able to regain that inner confidence of knowing I could do it,” Weekes explained. “And don’t forget, you had the entire year off, they changed a lot of the rules, and you were shorthanded a lot more than ever before. And oh, by the way, just to make things tougher, we’re now going to change the regulations and shrink your goalie equipment. You put all those things together and it was really, really difficult.”

To me — and I’m sure every goalie would agree — the whole gear-shrinking obstacle is the clincher. Compared to what goalies will face when this lockout ends, I don’t think it comes anywhere close to what goalies faced in 2005.

I mean, could you imagine if an NHL goalie had to face eight Pittsburgh Penguins power play chances in a single game next season…wearing smaller gear?!

“Sid to Geno to Sid to Geno to Letang back to Sid…and he scores again.”

At least nobody would have a reason to complain about the lack of scoring.

As you can see, when it comes to NHL goalies dealing with the issues of the current lockout, nothing is nearly as simple as it seems. The development process is already so fragile and difficult to begin with, as the path traveled from juniors to the NHL is an arduous one.

But sustaining that development, staying in shape (mentally and physically), and trying to improve your game is an obstacle not even some of the finest goalies in the universe can overcome. Without the experience of playing games, it’s essentially impossible.

I try, but I can’t imagine the frustration that comes from knowing my entire career could be crushed due to a few months, or one season, of not playing. Imagine being in Boucher’s shoes right now. He’s currently injured, labeled as “an aging veteran” and has limited time left in the NHL. Knowing that Dan Ellis was offered a tryout by the Charlotte Checkers, and recently named the AHL Player of the Week, Boucher has to be feeling quite helpless.

If Ellis continues to play well for Charlotte, and Boucher is unable to find a place to play this season, how does that change the optics of Carolina’s goaltending? Will they look to sign Ellis to a new one-year deal to be Ward’s backup for the 2013-14 season? That makes sense to me, because Justin Peters benefits more from playing a heavy workload in Charlotte, as opposed to riding the pine behind Ward.

The same type of issues are taking place in Anaheim with goalie Jeff Deslauriers. He wasn’t even sent down to the AHL, because the Ducks want to develop two very promising prospects in Igor Bobkov and Frederik Andersen.

Looking around the league and how the lockout impacts the goalie depth chart of each team, like Weekes said, it’s not a matter of “if” goalies will be done with their NHL careers, it’s a question of how many.

From the politics of playing in Europe, to handling the frustration of not being able to focus on your game due to the numerous “unknowns” and “what-ifs”, the lockout could be an apocalyptic experience for some.

And to me, it really is like a Game of Thrones for the goalies.

Brodeur is just one of those 30 rulers in major limbo right now, and although he’s not ready to retire, I struggle to find a starting goalie more impacted by the lockout.

Whether or not he decides to play in Europe is almost a moot point. For each day that goes by, even though more and more goalies are joining the game, when the music ultimately stops and the NHL finally returns, Brodeur’s throne with the Devils will still be waiting for him.

But his biological clock continues to tick, and the longer this lockout drags on, the more it hurts him.

Winter is coming, and the harsh reality is that no matter how hard some goalies work to survive, some are still destined to perish.

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