Wednesday November 5th, 2008

Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall. Gump Worsley and Rogie Vachon. Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk.

Consider some of the great netminding combos of the past and one thing is abundantly clear: they don't make 'em like they used to.

Of course, it was a lot easier to load up on a pair of Hall of Fame contenders when there were just 12 teams in the league. And given the limitations of the modern salary cap, it takes some serious sleight of hand to maintain a competitive roster and still employ an eminently qualified duo like Dominik Hasek and Chris Osgood of last season's Red Wings.

So most teams place their eggs in one heavily-padded basket and hold their breath. If anything should go horribly wrong, as it did last Saturday for Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils, well, there's always next year.

The freakish injury -- a torn distal bicep, one of those tendons few of us even know we have -- requires surgery and could sideline Brodeur until early March, leaving an unfillable hole in the Devils lineup and in fantasy pool squads across the land.

For Brodeur, it means his heavily-hyped assault on the record books goes on hold. He's eight wins shy of passing Patrick Roy on the all-time wins list (551) and six shutouts away from topping Sawchuk's career record (103).

For the Devils, well, by the time Brodeur returns, a shot at Roy may be all they have left to compete for.

That's no knock on Kevin Weekes, the veteran backup who probably envisioned the NHL's lightest workload when he signed on as a free agent last summer. Instead of working up a sweat in practice and then enjoying the view from his seat on the glass, he's now charged with covering up the blemishes on a team that expected to challenge for the Atlantic title despite being a shadow of its former greatness.

Good luck with all that. While core components Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski have slowly been whittled away, the Devils have remained perennial contenders over the years based on the consistent brilliance of Brodeur. At 33, Weekes is regarded as a dependable spot starter, but he'll be hard pressed to hide the flaws of a blueline that relies so heavily on the likes of Bryce Salvador, Johnny Oduya and Colin White, and a forward corps for which three goals is an embarrassment of riches.

You can almost forgive GM Lou Lamoriello for exposing himself like this. If there was an element of Brodeur that was underrated, it was his durability. He'd played fewer than 70 games only once in the past 12 seasons. He'd missed just nine games to injury or illness in his career prior to this incident. The guy was as reliable as that hairy sheepdog that punched the clock alongside Wile E. Coyote.

So now Lou will have to tread water with the unimposing tandem of Weekes and Scott Clemmensen. But don't expect that duo to still be tending the shop come Christmas. When fans of the goalie-starved Avs and Kings start casting pitying glances your way, you know it's time to start exploring your options.

Short term, though, Weekes is in a no-lose situation. If he can offer with any kind of consistency the same sort of effort as his 28-save performance in a 2-0 loss to Buffalo on Monday night, he's a hero. If not, well hey, he's Kevin Weekes, the guy who's played just 57 games over the past four seasons. The guy who hasn't been a starter since 2003-04. The guy who hasn't floated a save percentage above .900 since the lockout.

Weekes is a solid teammate and an insightful interview subject, but there are several good reasons why he's a backup in this league. The consistency the Devils crave is something that's always eluded him. He can overplay the puck. He also has a tendency to give up the soft goal, especially on long-range shots.

It's hard to imagine this team changing up its approach, but that might be the only way the Devils stay afloat. They earned 99 points last season despite ranking 27th in goals scored. Without Brodeur, they would have held a lottery ticket, not home ice in the first round. They've been slightly more productive this season, at least at even strength, but they may have to open it up, focus on providing enough offense to give Weekes a little breathing room.

It's a lot to ask of this group, and of this franchise, but these are desperate times. It may be their best chance to hold the fort until Brodeur's return.

Unless, of course, someone's got a working number for Plante and Hall.

You can't blame fans of the Dallas Stars for rolling their eyes at the news that the team signed free agent Mark Parrish to a one-year, $500,000 deal on Tuesday. After watching their struggling heroes give up 10 goals in a pair of weekend losses to Chicago and Boston, the hope was that the club's glaring defensive shortcomings might have been prioritized. But don't think that co-GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull missed the point and attributed the team's recent struggles to a lack of cement-footed streaky scorers with a history of injury problems. It's more likely they've decided that Fabian Brunnstrom isn't ready for prime time and needs some work on his defensive game in the minors. Parrish brings a much needed right-hand shot and has always been regarded as a good teammate. That latter quality might come in handy given the fractious state of the Stars dressing room. . .

Peter Budaj's boots have been held to the fire for Colorado's recent 0-5 slide, and no doubt he deserves some of the blame. His lack of side-to-side mobility and generous rebound distribution have made him the league's favorite early-season slump-buster. But as with equally charitable Stars, many of the Avs' problems stem from what should be their greatest strength: the blueline. Brett Clark, as solid as he was underappreciated last season, has been a turnover machine this season, and his decision-making has been spotty. Veterans Scott Hannan and Adam Foote, expected to anchor the defense, have been noticeable only for how often they're beaten to pucks and for failing to cover their assignments in front of Budaj.

While that trio should straighten out their games over time, Colorado's biggest flaw will be harder to address. These Avs are, as a group, painfully slow. At a time when speed kills, they rely on too many players who don't have the wheels to match up on a nightly basis. Getting cornered on the goaltending situation is one thing, but building a team that can't keep pace is an indictment of GM Francois Giguere's decision-making. . .

The Sabres might just have something big in 5-foot 5-inch left wing Nathan Gerbe. The mighty mite led the college circuit with 68 points in 43 games for the Boston College Eagles in 2007-08 and was named USA Hockey's College Player of the Year. Of course, you can look out the window and spot a dozen guys with similar resumes selling insurance, so there were questions about his ability to take his game to the next level. But after scoring seven goals in his first eight games with Portland of the AHL, those concerns seem less pressing. Gerbe's speed and guile have made him not just one of the most dangerous scorers in the minors, but one of the most entertaining.

Still there are plenty of doubts lingering around a player better suited to being a jockey.

"It's an issue," one scout told "We talk about guys who are 5-11 being undersized, and he's half a foot shorter than that. You look at him and picture [an NHL] defender putting a big mitt on his head while he swings wildly with both hands like in the old cartoons. It's a huge disadvantage. But he has the quickness that little guys have to have and he finds a way to burst through the holes. And this kid is clever. The things he can do with the puck are dazzling."

The Sabres aren't having any trouble scoring now, but if the offense hits a rut this season, expect Gerbe to get a look.

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