A Tale of Three Goalies

With the Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist all among the NHL's elite, the debate over who's the best hearkens back to the days of Willie, Mickey and the Duke
January 14, 2008

New York, New York, NEW JERSEY

ONE DAY after the Toronto Maple Leafs chased New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the first period of a 6--2 rout last month, this exchange appeared on the message board Islandermania. ¶ BOSSY FOR PRESIDENT: "If DP [Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro] was on, let's say, Toronto...they would be one of the best teams in the NHL. Henrik has a great team in front of him. He just has to be a bit better than mediocre and he's fine. DP has to be borderline FANTASTIC for his team to win. With a good team around him, DP is far superior, no question." ¶ ADAMJAY12: "Interesting topic, but the real important fact is: when will either be as good as that Marty [Brodeur] guy in New Jersey?

He's the greatest goalie in this area's recent history. I mean after [former Islanders Stanley Cup winner] Billy Smith, of course."

SECTION317: "Rick is 1000X the athlete Lundqvist is. The only one that comes close to Rick is Brodeur. Lundqvist is positionally sound because he NEVER takes chances and never leaves the crease. Rick is insane, but he backs it up with athleticism."

HAM2112: "DP 3, Queen 1 [a slam at Lundqvist's nickname, the King]. (Any questions?) DP 3, Brodeur 0 (Amazing how human Martin looks playing for a mediocre team)."

NEW YORKERS today conduct their sports arguments with posts and ripostes in a postmodern Dew Drop Inn on the Web, but in the mid-'50s debates were settled fan to fan in crowded, smoke-filled barrooms, where the pounding of a fist on the bar and not capital letters was the preferred form of emphasis. The favorite topic in those days: Who is the best centerfielder in New York—the Giants' Willie Mays, the Yankees' Mickey Mantle or the Dodgers' Duke Snider? Yes, talkin' Willie, Mickey and the Duke.

More than a half century later, America's leading metropolis is graced with Marty, Ricky and the King, another trio of superb players who play a marquee position. If comparing the New Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro and the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist with the holy trinity of New York centerfielders seems like sacrilege, you're probably right; only Brodeur, a certain Hall of Famer, has reached a level comparable to those ballplayers'. But both Lundqvist, 25, and DiPietro, 26—each by far the most important player on his team—are a decade younger than the masked marvel of New Jersey, and both can claim a place among the NHL's elite.

So who's your guy? The debate would be over in a New York minute if career accomplishments were the only measure. After the Devils' 3--0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers last Friday, Brodeur was a mere 36 wins behind Patrick Roy's career record 551. He is a three-time Stanley Cup champion; he helped Canada win the 2002 Olympic gold medal; and at 35, he is the gold standard for the position, having won three of the last four Vezina Trophies. "You always get a little extra excited when you're facing Marty," Lundqvist says. "He's achieved a lot."

But NHL goaltending is not a snapshot of past accolades, it's a kaleidoscope of the present, continually twirling.Lundqvist, who won the Olympic gold medal with Sweden in 2006 and has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy in each of his first two NHL seasons, has been a linchpin in Manhattan, turning the laggard Rangers into Cup threats. And DiPietro, the first goaltender ever to be drafted No.1 (in 2000), has become Long Island's goalie for life after signing a 15-year, $67.5 million contract that labeled him as a franchise goalie in a way that's unprecedented. "Ricky has so much confidence that there's no fear of failure," says an Eastern Conference goalies coach. "He's special."

If you wanted one goalie to win a game, you would probably pick Brodeur, whose Devils led the Atlantic Division with 49 points through Sunday. If you wanted a younger goalie as a cornerstone of an organization, you might choose one of the two New Yorkers. (The Rangers and the Islanders were four and five points back, respectively.) "I wouldn't trade Hank for the others," says Rangers winger Brendan Shanahan. "He's technically sound, which should allow him longevity."

Although Marty, Ricky and the King—three players of different nationalities and with very different styles—currently rank outside the top five in save percentage and goals-against average, they have played splendidly this season while backstopping three of the NHL's six most anemic attacks. The netminders' margin for error is minuscule. They figuratively play without a net most nights. According to that Eastern Conference goalies coach, all three rate among the top six in the league. Just don't ask the coach to rank them.

ABRODEUR SAVE—he had made 27,238 of them in his regular-season and playoff career—is like a snowflake: No two are exactly alike. He goes down on one knee (usually the right). He stands up, like a goalie from the early '80s. He employs the butterfly on occasion. He even stacks his pads. There is nothing formulaic to the 6'2", 215-pound Brodeur's style, no signature play like a Mays basket catch. He simply makes the save that every shot warrants. Throughout the years he has appropriated elements from othergoalies—Felix Potvin's paddle down, Ron Hextall's puck moving, Dominik Hasek's intelligent scrambling—and fused them into something unique. His singular advantage, of course, is an ability to read the game at a higher level than his peers, the hockey equivalent of tackling Ulysses without explanatory notes. Says another Eastern Conference goalies coach, "He's seeing things happening before they actually occur. That's the nirvana of goaltending. When a goalie gets to that level, he can play forever."

He will not play forever, of course, probably just 4 1/2 more years, until his contract expires when he's 40. Brodeur has played 70 or more games in each of 10 seasons; barring injuries or an unthinkable Devils collapse, he should end up 100 or so victories clear of Roy. "I have Marty ahead of Patrick right now," Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe says. "The way he handles the puck really does make him like an extra defenseman. A lot of players thought some nights Patrick was beatable, but I don't think anyone has thought of Marty, over the last six or eight years, asbeatable."

While not oblivious to the great New York goalie debate—"Some fans'll come up and say 'Lundqvist's better than you,'" a smiling Brodeur said before making 31 saves in a 3--2 win over Florida on Jan.2—the Montreal native treats it as he does almost everything else, with a Gallic shrug. Lundqvist might be the King, but Brodeur grasps that he is master of the goaltending universe. "He relishes the big game and big moment and wants it on his shoulders, but he's very relaxed about it," says Islanders captain Bill Guerin, who played 4 1/2 seasons with Brodeur in New Jersey. "Marty's like, 'Yeah, let's go win a game.'"

Despite a strong 2.17 goals-against average and a creditable .918 save percentage through Sunday, Brodeur hasn't won at all this season against DiPietro and Lundqvist. Since HAM2112's post on Islandermania, Brodeur has fallen to 0-5-2 against his wannabe rivals. (DiPietro is 3--1 against Lundqvist.) Brodeur generously lauds DiPietro for his flair and personality—"I've had shutouts against them, and at the end of the game he's flipped the puck in my direction, which is cool," he says—but his tone is distinctly frostier on the subject of Lundqvist. They crossed paths at the NHL awards ceremony last June, but Brodeur says Lundqvist never looked in his direction. Although he attributes that to a European temperament rather than old-time hockey nonfraternization between a Devil and a Ranger, Lundqvist's on-ice style is more problematic for the New Jersey goalie. "The way he plays the game is not something I like too much," says Brodeur, whose 96 career regular-season shutouts were seven short of Terry Sawchuk's record."Lundqvist is weird."

If he looks weird, he is generally wonderful. Lundqvist has taken the Roy-style butterfly and spread its wings, pushing the technique to its logical extension. Extension is the key. The 6'1" goalie has the widest stance in the NHL; indeed his splayed legs allow him almost no option but to go down. When Lundqvist does drop into a butterfly, his pads cover almost the full six feet of the bottom of the net. He also has been blessed with exceptional lateral speed, and even Brodeur acknowledges that Lundqvist, who plays uncommonly deep in his crease, knows when to come out and challenge shooters. Although Brodeur's and Lundqvist's physical approaches to the position are a world apart—coming from Sweden and the wider international-sized rinks, Lundqvist is more of an east-west goalie—Rangers goalie coach Beno√Æt Allaire holds up Brodeur's mental resilience to his own goalie as a template. "I always talk about how Marty handles things, how he can have a bad game one day and a shutout the next," Allaire says. "I tell Henrik that sometimes you don't have to take two or three practices to get your game back."

Through Lundqvist's first 36 starts this season he allowed four or more goals just seven times, the Torontodebacle included. "We build off Hank because we feel we can at least attempt to go score because he's back there," Rangers coach Tom Renney says. "And what I like about Hank is his ability to handle the nuances of New York City. This is a big place with a lot going on, but he doesn't let all the peripheral things—[in 2006, for example, Lundqvist was named as one of PEOPLE magazine's 100 Most Beautiful]—interfere with his being a professional."

Yet if there ever were an ideal marriage of goalie and environment, DiPietro and New York are it. When the Islanders called up the Winthrop, Mass., native at age 19 in 2001, his minor league goaltending partner, veteran Wendell Young, joked that DiPietro was going to need two seats on the plane, one for his body and another for his ego. His body has swelled—with 200 pounds on his 6-foot frame, he's 15 pounds heavier than he was as a rookie—and his cockiness has hardly shrunk. DiPietro is hyperaggressive and acrobatic, but his strengths sometimes can turn into liabilities, like when he charged Montreal's Steve Bégin on a breakaway last March and wound up sustaining a concussion for his trouble. "I know we've scored a couple of goals on him when he has played the puck," Buffalo Sabres center Derek Roy says. "Because he challenges so much, it opens up a lot of backdoor stuff if you fake him."

"Right now he's managing his game better than he did," Brodeur says of DiPietro. "The only question is [about] how emotional he is. When you're a goalie of that stature with that kind of contract, you become a leader. You're responsible for 19 other guys. You have to be composed, to feel you're in control at all times. I'm not sure that he is. He snaps. He breaks his stick. If you're not in control, how can you expect your team to be in control? When he's stable, and I think he will be within a year, things are going to go...." Brodeur extended his fingers, an airplane angling skyward.

And that, hockey fans, is when the Marty, Ricky or the King debate will really take off.

"What I like about Hank," says Renney, "is HOW HE HANDLES NEW YORK CITY. He doesn't let peripheral things interfere."

"You're responsible for 19 other guys," Brodeur says of DiPietro. "You have to be composed, be in control. I'M NOT SURE HE IS."


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PHOTOMASKS: LOU CAPOZZOLA PHOTOMASKS: CHRISTOPHER PASATIERI/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOMASKS: ED MULHOLLAND/US PRESSWIRE PHOTOPhotograph by Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesSAVING GRACE Brodeur, who sees the ice better than any goalie, could become the NHL's alltime wins leader next season. PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLAHOME, SWEDE, HOME Lundqvist's deep-in-the-crease style may be uninspiring, but it's made him a two-time Vezina finalist. PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGESROAMING WILD The cocky DiPietro is a superb puckhandler who sometimes needs to corral his creative impulses.