As a New Jersey Devils fan, I used to rue the day when Martin Brodeur would hang up the pads, pick up a pizza and start cobbling together his Hall of Fame reception invitations list.
(Rue the day? Who talks like that?)
Not so much anymore. There was a time when I couldn't picture a Devils roster without Marty Brodeur; now, with him on it, I see the franchise hopelessly tethered to a history it can't match.
I've come to terms with the diminishing returns, fragility of body and slow descent from best in the world to Martin Brodeur in-name-only. He can still dazzle you with a save and frustrate the hell out of an opponent; he can also be a liability, which is something you never expected Martin Brodeur to be for the Devils. Well, outside of the playoffs since 2003.
The last four games tell the tale: Six goals allowed in a home loss against Boston; 41 saves and a sterling win at Pittsburgh; pulled within eight minutes at Calgary after two goals on five shots; and then 22 saves at Winnipeg in a win over the Jets.
Consistency has been supplanted by feast and then famine. Dependability has been replaced with silent prayers that the Devils receive a vintage performance rather than a rickety one. He moves slower in the crease. He whiffs on more shots. There's still undeniable reverence for an NHL legend, but there's also a sense that we're nearing the last page of the fable.
But at age 40, in the final year of his contract, with nothing else to prove, Martin Brodeur is leaning towards another year in the NHL.
From the New York Post, Brodeur's strongest indication yet that 2011-12 isn't the final chapter:
"I'm having fun," said Martin Brodeur, expected to be in goal for the Devils tonight when the Jets visit Prudential Center. "I feel differently about it now than I did last summer, or at the start of the season," Brodeur said. "It's not 100 percent, but I'm definitely leaning toward coming back next year."
The possibility of a lockout next season could muddle his plans, but Brodeur previously insisted he was undecided about playing after his contract ($5.2 million) ends this season.
"There's a bigger chance now than before," said Brodeur, 13-10-1 in this, his 18th NHL season. "A few people I've spoken to have told me that if you think you still have that little flame, keep it going, because once it's out, it's out."
It's the same thing you hear from other athletes, and from many other hockey players. The question then becomes whether Brodeur becomes a franchise lifer or if circumstances change.
To play Devils' advocate for a moment (har-dee-har), Brodeur makes $5 million this season. While that's already a hometown discount, it's hard to imagine the Devils paying anything near that (or over it) for a 41-year-old's swan song season. Yes, they'll have oodles of cap space next year even if they resign Zach Parise (a miracle on ice, it's increasingly sounding like); but will Brodeur take a discount on a discount to stay?
Outside of the ownership concerns for the team, the economics probably aren't a factor. Lou Lamoriello will gladly have Brodeur back as long as the goaltender wants to play, and then will likely have him in the organization in some capacity afterwards.
Some Devils fans want Brodeur back simply because the future of the position is so frightening without him. Both he and Johan Hedberg are unrestricted free agents. AHLer Keith Kinkaid was an NCAA standout and a late bloomer as a prospect, but isn't yet NHL-ready. The unrestricted free-agent alternatives are … well, they look like this.
There's no ready solution if he hangs 'em up. The Devils' style of play could turn an average goalie into an above-average one — hello, Scott Clemmensen — as a stop-gap. But there's no one ready to inherit the throne, as if anyone could hope to fit that crown.
He's the franchise, from the achievements to the system in front of him. It's always been about Marty, and Marty's always been about the Devils. As his skills diminished and the end nears, that hasn't changed.
He's earned the right to decide when it's over and to have the Devils act accordingly. But I can't shake the notion that "one more year" is going to look like a bewildered Brett Favre tossing the ball to the other team or the last two seasons of Mantle in the Bronx.
It's not how we'll remember him, but it's how we're likely going to see him. Yet he's earned the right to drink up well past the expiration date. And, hopefully, the chance to shut me up with one last run.