The Devils Should Trade Martin Brodeur, Though Not Really

The Devils aren’t going to trade Martin Brodeur. If they did, any positive press they gained by locking up Ilya Kovalchuk to a (really) long-term deal and temporarily loosening Lou Lamoriello’s dubious reputation as an anti free-agent-splash, defense-first-to-a-fault franchise patriarch would be immediately bulldozed by media types declaring Lamoriello more cold-hearted than ever, and the Jersey season ticket vendors don’t need that.

So when I suggest in this post that the New Jersey Devils should trade Martin Brodeur this offseason, I do it with the full knowledge that this suggestion operates in an objective fantasy world free of sentimentality and public perception, and, therefore, I’m not actually suggesting they should do it, just that from a purely analytical hockey perspective, it would make a lot of sense.

Here’s why:

The details of the Kovalchuk deal haven’t been finalized yet — I’m reading it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 97 years, $500 billion? And the source is Kovalchuk’s mother whispering it to a reporter in a cabin during a game of “telephone”? — but assuming Kovalchuk’s cap hit is in the neighborhood of $5.8-$6.0 million (and that’s with a shady cap-skirting long-term deal), that would put the Devils $2.1-2.3 million over the current cap, and that’s with only eleven forwards currently under contract and with no wiggle room set aside for in-season transactions.

Even more alarming to the Devils’ cap situation is the impending Restricted Free Agency of Zach Parise, who’s entering the final year of his cap-friendly 4-year, $3.125 mil per year deal and surely looking at a raise in the neighborhood of $2.5-4 million per year, depending on how shadily long-term it is. In short, the Devils are facing serious short-term cap problems with the Kovalchuk addition, and need to make a salary-dumping move or two.

Currently, the biggest chunks of salary on the Devils’ payroll are divided up into three main categories:

1) Untradable big-money contracts – Brian Rolston for 2 more years at a $5 mil cap hit, and Patrik Elias for 3 more years at a $6 mil cap hit.

2) Value-appropriate players who wouldn’t provide much cap relief if they were dealt – Travis Zajac for 3 more years at a $3.888 mil cap hit, Dainus Zubrus for 3 years, $3.4 mil cap hit, Colin White for 2 years, $3 mil cap hit, Bryce Salvador for 2 years, $2.9 mil cap hit, and Jamie Langenbrunner for 1 year, $2.5 mil cap hit.

3) Contracts the Devils just added this offseason – Anton Volchenkov for 6 years, $4.25 mil cap hit, Henrik Tallinder for 4 years, $3.375 mil cap hit, Jason Arnott for just 1 remaining year at $4.5 mil, as well as the just-extended David Clarkson for 3 years at a $2.667 mil cap hit.

Obviously the Devils’ problems would solve themselves quickly if another team took Brian Rolston off their hands, but with the Rangers and Canadiens so close to the cap themselves, it’s tough to imagine anyone being that stupid. Volchenkov and Tallinder are obviously untradable, and trading one year of Arnott would be fiscally possible, but it would raise questions about the clarity of Lamoriello’s offseason plan (and deprive the Devils of another center).

Trading White, Salvador, Zubrus, or Tallinder would be possible, though none of them would offer significant cap relief or major returns from a talent stand-point. Plus dealing just one probably wouldn’t be enough to get the Devils under the cap for the coming season, especially if the return on the deal included any salary coming back to Jersey.

So, why not make the one move that would free up $5.2 mil of cap space and net an actual, tangible hockey return without hurting the Devils much in the short-term? Why not think the unthinkable and deal Martin Brodeur?

Here are the two main reasons why the Devils should trade Martin Brodeur this offseason:

1) Brodeur would actually net a return.

Despite his advanced age and notably declining performance (his past two playoff exits have been especially alarming), Brodeur would be sought after by a number contenders looking to take the next step — Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Ottawa immediately come to mind — and would instantly add experience, credibility and notoriety to his destination franchise, which would greatly benefit markets like Tampa and L.A. from a promotional stand-point in addition to any on-ice upgrade.

Even if the Devils find a franchise to take on the contracts of Brian Rolston or Patrik Elias, the Devils wouldn’t receive anything in return, and might actually have to include additional talent in the deal to entice another team to take on those unwieldy salaries. The trades would provide short-term cap relief, but nothing else.

Trading Brodeur to a talent-rich team like L.A. or Tampa who’s desperate to make a playoff splash ASAP could net a legitimate prospect, or a lesser prospect and a backup goalie, or some combination of a serviceable player and a first-round pick. This wouldn’t necessarily equal Brodeur’s short-term value, but it would certainly improve the club in the long term far more than a salary dump of Rolston, Elias, Zubrus, or another veteran would, while also offering enough cap relief to offset the Kovalchuk addition.

2) The Devils’ on-ice play wouldn’t decline that much with Johan Hedberg in goal

I realize the above statement sounds blasphemous, but any Devils fan who suffered through Brodeur’s last two playoff exits knows firsthand that no goaltender is immortal. Furthermore, with Antti Niemi defeating Michael Leighton in the Stanley Cup final this year while Roberto Luongo, Ryan Miller, Ilya Bryzgalov, Henrik Lundqvist, Cam Ward, and Miikka Kiprusoff watched from afar (with the last three all missing the playoffs), just a year after let-go-by-the-Islanders Chris Osgood came one game away from winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, we were again reminded that in the current NHL landscape, the term “franchise goaltender” wavers with almost runningback-like unpredictability.

The 37-year-old Hedberg posted a .915 Save Percentage last year, almost identical to the 38-year-old Brodeur’s .916. Meanwhile, the Devils allowed an average of just 27.0 shots per game last season, 2nd fewest in the NHL, while the Thrashers surrendered an average of 33.1 shots per game, the 3rd most in the NHL; this also doesn’t measure the quality of shots allowed by the respective teams, which, one would deduce would be a lot higher against the goalie whose team allowed 6 more shots per game, making Hedberg’s .001 difference in save percentage all the more impressive. Goalies with more confidence in their defense often have additional success because they can cut off angles even more extremely if they know that their cross-ice passes and opposing forwards fishing for rebounds will be covered (see: Osgood’s terrific 2008 Cup campaign), meaning that Hedberg’s numbers will almost assuredly improve going from a terrible defensive team in Atlanta to an excellent defensive team in New Jersey, for numerous reasons.

Granted, much of the Devils’ defensive success last year can likely be attributed to now-departed head coach Jacques Lemaire, but still, with most of the Devils’ roster returning and the addition of noted shot-blocker Anton Volchenkov to assume Paul Martin’s ice time, first-year coach John Maclean would have to sniper-rifle his players’ knees in the middle of shifts for the 2010-11 Devils to play worse defense than the 2009-10 Thrashers.

If Hedberg were anointed the Devils’ starter, people would assuredly point out Hedberg’s lack of postseason experience (save his memorable ’01 Penguins run), which is a legitimate concern, but in turn, I’ll ask those people to re-watch journeyman Michael Leighton outplaying Brodeur in the Playoffs this past April, and ponder whether the intangible quality of experience is truly worth paying three times as much for a goaltender when a potentially comparable short-term alternative is available.

I’ll also repeat: Antti Niemi had never played a playoff game before this season. The Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions. Any goalie can get hot, any goalie can run cold, and paying an extra $4 mil for an experienced name guarantees nothing.

In conclusion, this was a giant waste of time, because the Devils won’t trade Martin Brodeur this offseason. It would be a publicity nightmare and cast a pall on the franchise that would overshadow all the positives of the Kovalchuk signing, and if the Devils ended up not winning the Cup, whichever goalie dared to replace Brodeur would gain instant access to the Elite Scapegoats Club, regardless of how he played. Running a team based on loyalty and public perception can be tricky business for any GM, but when that loyalty pertains to a player of Brodeur’s magnitude, and the potential fallout from a trade involves a year’s worth of postgame questions about Brodeur, unrelenting pressure on his successor, and potential ire from the team’s ticket-purchasing populace, loyalty no longer becomes a vague secondary ideal, but a concern with serious tangible repercussions.

Instead, barring a miracle taker for Rolston or an equally unlikely buyout, the Devils will almost assuredly nickel-and-dime their way to cap clearance this year by dealing some combination of Zajac, Salvador, or Colin White, and allowing the impending free agency of Jason Arnott next season and merciful Rolston free agency the following year to offset the eventual and absolutely necessary Parise extension.

Sticking with Brodeur indefinitely won’t be the smartest move for the Devils from a pure hockey standpoint, but it is, all things considered, the right move. Kind of.

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