Last season, Clemmensen went from minor leaguer to a major reason why the Devils captured the 2008-09 Atlantic Division title. He began the year in Lowell, but wound up with the starting job in New Jersey after Martin Brodeur
was lost to an elbow injury for four months.
Once Brodeur’s backup, Clemmensen exceeded every expectation by going 25-13-1. He signed with the Florida Panthers as a free agent last summer, and will be in net tonight to face his former team.
“I’m excited about playing back here in front of these fans,” Clemmensen said. “I think it’s going to be a fun, exciting night for me.”
The Devils drafted Clemmensen in the eighth round, 215th overall, of the 1997 Entry Draft. The Des Moines, Iowa, native debuted with two appearances in 2001-02, but saw action in only 25 games over five seasons with New Jersey. After signing with the Maple Leafs’ organization for 2007-08, he spent the bulk of the season with the AHL’s Marlies.
Clemmensen rejoined the Devils in 2008 and admitted Friday it would be different seeing the horned logo on the opponents' side. He’s 4-3 with a 4.01 goals-against average and .880 save percentage in nine games this season.
“For sure, for sure,” he said. “I’ve been associated with it for such a long time. It becomes a part of you. The on-the-ice habits, off-the-ice habits become a part of you. I’ll carry those with me no matter where I go, I think. It will be weird to be playing (them) tonight.”
He was nervous – something that generally comes with being the last line of defense.
“I don’t think I’m any more nervous now than I am for any other game because it’s so hard to play in this League and it’s so challenging,” he said. “You want to play well every night and those nerves are going to be there every game and they have been there for me. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think nerves play a factor into it. Obviously you want to do well back in this building and in front of the fans and against your old teammates. You obviously want to do well, and you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t a little extra excitement involved.”
Clemmensen said he still has friends on the team and follows the Devils more than other clubs. Considering his role last year, Clemmensen was hardly surprised by the way Jersey's Team has overcome injuries to take a share of the division lead.
“That’s how it is,” he said. “They find ways to win, no matter what, and that’s because they have the character guys that they get there and the skill level that they have. Obviously, you can’t replace some of the injuries that you have. David Clarkson
brings a different dimension to their game – you can’t replace him. But you can bring in players that know the system; that are skilled enough to play with the other guys. They just keep rolling along and that’s because their culture is ingrained all throughout their organization. It surprises me that people are surprised that they win all the time.”
In the Devils’ dressing room Friday morning, there was no shortage of praise for Clemmensen’s accomplishments last season. Over 40 appearances in ‘08-09, he recorded a 2.39 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage, while posting the first two shutouts of his career.
“He obviously got us through a huge void in our lineup,” said captain Jamie Langenbrunner. “Clemmer came in and really elevated his game to a level that I’m not sure anyone was sure he could get to and did it for a long period of time. He proved that he can play in this League.”
Mike Mottau was Clemmensen’s teammate for three seasons at Boston College, where Clemmensen was nicknamed “Dr. Zero” for setting the NCAA mark for most consecutive shutout minutes (254:23) in 1997-98. Clemmensen’s consistent play was the interim solution the Devils needed last season.
“We wouldn’t have been in the position we were at the end of the year if it wasn’t for him,” Mottau said. “He came in and steadied the team, pretty much. After Marty went down there were a lot of question marks as to who would step up, and it turned out to be him. There were a lot of questions throughout the whole team and everybody had to step their game up, but he came in and really did a great job for us.”
There have been similar surprises this year, such as the performance of Andy Greene
, who has filled in as the top defenseman in the absence of Paul Martin (arm, 20 games missed). Greene had been a healthy scratch early in the campaign, but has produced 17 points (5g-12a) in 26 games to lead all New Jersey blueliners.
Unlike Clemmensen, who was assigned to Lowell once Brodeur recovered, Greene’s emergence gives the Devils another weapon for the rest of the season ahead.
“Both of them stepped into a role that was missing, but I think the difference is, in Clemmer’s case, there was only one person that can play in that position,” Langenbrunner said. “The difference with Greener is that I think he’s earned a spot that even when the guy comes back he’s going to be able to still play and still be able to contribute which is going to help our team that much more. The fact that Clemmer was able to do that didn’t really benefit us going forward because all of a sudden we just had him not playing. With Greener we’ve got a guy that plays with confidence that will be in the lineup when Paulie (Paul Martin) comes back.”
Hidden gems like Clemmensen and Greene have gotten the job done for the Devils at the right time.
“It’s the organization,” Brodeur said. “It keeps you accountable. If you’re not ready to pay the price even though you’re not playing, you’re not going to be around. Guys that are committed to being good players and want to be there, when they do get their chance, they’re ready. Just because your team pushes you to be ready all the time. It’s to the credit of the players, definitely.”
From the up-and-coming rookies to well-traveled vets, Brodeur believes each player in the Devils’ fold is there because he can contribute when called upon.
“I think the organization, when they keep you around, there’s a reason why they keep you around,” Brodeur said. “When you get your chance, it’s about you making the best of it. It’s like a young player coming in, or an older guy that just gets traded. Look at Dino (Dean McAmmond) right now with us. He didn’t have a contract; he had to go to the minors. He came here and got a chance with all the injuries, and now he’s playing an important role in our lineup. When you’re a professional and you do things the right way, you’ll definitely have a chance to get back in it sometimes.”