Wednesday January 20th, 2010

Mike Brodeur arrived in Manhattan last week after a three-plus-hour car ride from Binghamton, humped his goalie equipment bag up five flights of stairs to ice level at Madison Square Garden, slung the Ottawa Senators over his shoulder and carried them the rest of the night. The result: a 2-0 shutout of the Rangers in his second NHL game and one of the sweetest and most circuitous stories of the season.

Brodeur, 26, distantly related to New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur in the brotherhood-of-man/global-village not the it's-your-year-to-bring-the-macaroni-salad-to-the-family-reunion way, got the surprise start because Pascal Leclaire, Ottawa's nominal No. 1, sustained a concussion at the morning skate and backup Brian Elliott was feeling under the weather.

Maybe Brodeur's luck is changing.

His first start came last month against Minnesota, the day after the Wild's equipment truck caught fire and most of the players were obliged to break-in new gear. (This was basically as close to "guaranteed win night" as you get in the NHL.) Then he lucked into a match against the Rangers, a team that -- Marian Gaborik and two recent offensive outbursts notwithstanding -- struggles mightily with finishing plays. His 32-save performance earned Brodeur a start two nights later in Montreal against another team that sputters, except on the power play. Brodeur won again, making him unbeaten in three starts. He had stopped 84 of 87 shots, numbers reminiscent of his incredibly distant cousin.

Nice. But now the story starts to slope towards irony.

Brodeur was supposed to go the University of Wisconsin. Full ride. The works. Then two weeks before he was to head off to school, the university learned of a newspaper account that documented Brodeur playing one period in each of two exhibition games in the Western Hockey League.

"I was told before I played (those exhibitions) that it isn't an issue and shouldn't be an issue," said Brodeur, an Albertan who had been playing Junior A but thought he might be good enough for the jump to major junior. "But the school called me and told me those two periods meant I was ineligible (that season) and I would have to redshirt."

Instead of sacrificing the year, Brodeur, drafted in the seventh round by Chicago in 2003, went as an overage to Moose Jaw. Wisconsin was obliged to scurry to find another goalie at the 11th hour to take Brodeur's place and scholarship. They signed a kid from the Greater Toronto Area named Brian Elliott.

Elliott, Ottawa's ninth-round choice in Brodeur's draft year, went on to be an All-American, Hobey Baker finalist and NCAA champion. Meanwhile, Brodeur went on to play for four ECHL and three AHL teams before Ottawa signed him as a free agent and stuck him in Binghamton at the start of this season.

Now, Brodeur might not be the future of Senators, but he could be the immediate present. Leclaire is gone at least a week. Elliott, who started Monday against Boston and Tuesday against Chicago, has been inconsistent. Leclaire has been particularly disappointing considering that general manager Bryan Murray, who traded useful forward Antoine Vermette to Columbus for the presumptive No. 1 and a second-round pick last spring, is on the hook for the rest of Leclaire's $3.6 million this season and $4.8 million in 2010-11.

Leclaire often has looked overwrought in goal. He appears to have too many moving parts, as it is called in his business, to be a reliable high-end goalie. His pads sometimes resemble pinball flippers. He leaves rebounds in horrible places for his defensemen. Brodeur appears to be the anti-Leclaire: a 6' 2", 190-pound butterflyer who looks to be a basic puck blocker except for one thing: he seems to swallow pucks rather than deflect them. In three games, he did not litter his end with rebounds.

Since his teens, Brodeur has worked on his technique with the Calgary-based Eli Wilson, who has trained Philadelphia's Ray Emery and Montreal's Carey Price, among others.

This is where the story gets really twisted.

The Senators fired Wilson as their goalie coach last week. Now, a goalie coach might have been fired at midseason previously, but no one with whom On the Fly spoke in the past five days could come up with a name. (When St. Louis canned head coach Andy Murray earlier this month, Rick Wamsley, who had been the goalie coach, went to run the bench of the Blues' Peoria affiliate in place of new head coach Davis Payne, but this is hardly a sacking.) If Bryan Murray wasn't setting a precedent here, he was clearing terrain that had barely been explored.

There are two theories as to why Wilson was fired:

1) Murray was covering his tracks in the Leclaire acquisition, ascribing blame to the goalie coach the way some major league baseball teams scapegoat a pitching coach or batting instructor during the season. In this theory, Murray was simply off-loading responsibility for seemingly another goalie clunker in Canada's capital. (Other than the Flyers, who have struggled with their goaltending since Ron Hextall's early years, no other NHL team has such an inglorious history at the position. If Ottawa ever had nailed it in nets, or Dominik Hasek had not tweaked his groin in the 2006 Olympics, the Senators might have won one or two Stanley Cups by now.)

2) As Murray noted when he pink-slipped Wilson, Ottawa's goaltenders, in the NHL or Binghamton, had not developed sufficiently. Wilson, who replaced Ron Low, was initially hired because he had a strong relationship with Emery. Ultimately, Wilson could not prevent Emery's assorted meltdowns nor did he have a demonstrable effect on Martin Gerber. Meanwhile, Elliott seemed to have hit a plateau. Given the shoddy results, maybe Wilson was fair game. In this theory, you still get to assail Murray, but his fault was in not dismissing him sooner.

If Murray indeed had fired Wilson prior to the start of the season, the GM would have been part of the NHL's latest trend. From the start of the 2008-09 season to the beginning of 2009-10, 11 of the 30 teams changed goalie coaches. You can get dizzy watching this carrousel. Pete Peters left Edmonton for Anaheim to replace François Allaire, who went to Toronto; Pierre Groulx followed Jacques Martin from Florida to Montreal; former Canadiens goalie Jocelyn Thibault took over for former Canadiens goalie Jeff Hackett in Colorado; Arturs Irbe replaced Dave Prior in Washington. We could go on.

After decades of a relatively laissez-faire approach -- the Pittsburgh Penguins didn't have a full-time goalie coach after drafting Marc-André Fleury first overall in 2003, an oversight that contributed to his painful development -- things have changed. "Goal has become the most coached position in the sport," says Dallas Stars analyst Daryl Reaugh. "You don't see a left-wing coach. You don't see a coach specifically for center icemen."

The raft of hirings and firings also seems to signal a shift in the very nature of the job. Buffalo goalie coach Jim Corsi, who had a modest pro career, suggests the parameters have moved from the cozy confines of mentorship to something all encompassing. "There are a lot of organizations paying closer attention to how their goalies develop," he said. "There's a psycho-social level to the job, helping goalies push out bad thoughts, but goalies are expected to play better technically and tactically."

Brodeur might prove to be a stabilizing force or another one-month wonder for a team that never seems to get it right. Maybe Wilson's replacement -- head coach Cory Clouston said he and Murray have discussed the kind of goalie instructor they want -- will unlock the mystery of Leclaire or help mold Elliott into a legitimate No. 1. Or maybe Ottawa's goaltending will continue to stagnate.

In any case, the firing of Wilson is a reminder the position of goalie coach is all grown up.

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