By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (June 30) – So, here’s the deal as it stands on the cusp of free agency: Maple Leafs are poised to head into next season with one significant change. James van Riemsdyk for Luke Schenn. Decent upgrade at a grossly shallow position yet not nearly enough to prevent a) abject uneasiness, yet again, over the game’s most important flank – between the pipes; b) Randy Carlyle from having a nervous breakdown by mid-December and c) an eighth consecutive spring of playoff idleness.
Only an act of unprecedented trickery and voodoo by Brian Burke could assuage all three concerns before the puck is dropped in 2012-13. But, the Leafs GM would come awfully close by somehow persuading Martin Brodeur to trade red-and-black for blue-and-white. One of hockey’s most respected voices and talent-assessors – Rick Dudley – emphasized on his way to Montreal last month that Leafs are separated from playoff contention by “stability in goal.” I have uniformly maintained that James Reimer will bounce back strongly in his third NHL season but there isn’t a living, breathing human that would bring more to the Leafs table than Brodeur.
All by himself – during games, practices, team-meals, flights – he would teach the young Leafs about something with which they are entirely unfamiliar: winning. The most statistically-accomplished netminder of all time – and one of the most composed, learned individuals to ever play the game – would bring with him an unparalleled aura; one of instant, unconditional respect and credibility. These are character traits you cannot buy, even if you can buy the person that possesses them.
Why, you may ask, would Brodeur consider the Leafs in free agency? Simple: no club is in more desperate need of composure and equanimity between the pipes; and no goalie is more comfortable in his own skin – having accomplished everything in the game including the impossible: breaking Terry Sawchuk’s record for career, regular-season shut-outs. Sure, he still wants to play… and lots. He’d get that opportunity here, along with the chance to mentor the Leafs young goalies.
Francois Allaire would have no effect on Brodeur because there isn’t a goalie “coach” that has ever told the Montreal native how to play the position. Jacques Caron worked for years alongside Brodeur in New Jersey, yet was smart enough not to impose anything on the great netminder. Brodeur has been uniquely his own man (even in contract negotiation), and would never even consider leaving the Devils if the franchise were not on financial tenterhooks.
PHOTO I SNAPPED (ABOVE) OF MARTIN BRODEUR DURING GAME 5 OF THE STANLEY CUP FINAL IN NEWARK ON JUNE 9. THE GUY KNOWS JUST A TAD ABOUT WINNING.
Nothing fails the “laugh test” more heartily than myopic Leaf observers who suggest Brodeur is “over the hill” and incapable of helping the Blue and White. All the bum did is back-stop New Jersey to within a couple of wins of the Stanley Cup – out-performing Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist along the way. Of course, we all know standards are much higher in Leaf Land after seven springs of playoff absence and one of the monumental, late-season folderoos of all time (sigh).
It wasn’t long ago that a Leafs manager erred spectacularly on the side of caution. Though I maintain John Ferguson wasn’t nearly as incompetent as most others believe, he imploded by refusing to trade Alex Steen and Tomas Kaberle to Edmonton for Chris Pronger six summers ago. I cannot tell you, for certain, whether he was forbidden from making such a move by the tall foreheads that governed his every notion on Bay St. What I can tell you is this: As with Brodeur today, Leafs had a chance to acquire one of the great natural-born winners of all-time. There’s no telling what Pronger’s mere presence might have done to alter the post-lockout direction of the Blue and White, which has constantly pointed one way: south.
Remember the Wayne Gretzky pursuit of summer 1996? Same thing. Gretzky wasn’t the same player as in 1986, yet there was no conceivable down-side to bringing him aboard. Winning was part of his DNA. Losing had become part of the Leafs’ DNA. Sadly, ownership couldn’t find another row of seats to cram into Maple Leaf Gardens. Though terribly mis-guided, Steve Stavro was right: No. 99 couldn’t possibly add to the bottom line with fans willing to pay top dollar to watch a loser. In fairness to Stavro, he changed his approach when Pat Quinn came aboard, but it was two years too late.
Brodeur is similarly a difference-maker: arguably the best to ever play the game’s most critical position, with the individual and team-decoration to prove it. His presence would mean more to the Leafs than any player available this off-season. Brian Burke should be on his front door-step when the free agency bell tolls.
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