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Unmasked: Brodeur's methods must mesh with Blues

by Kevin Woodley

Much has been made about how odd it is to see Martin Brodeur in St. Louis Blues colors after more than two decades as the goalie and franchise icon for the New Jersey Devils.

It may be even more odd to watch Brodeur's at-times-unconventional, old-school goaltending mesh with the style of play the Blues employ.

Brodeur dismissed the popular butterfly save-selection style early in a pro career which has gone pretty well without it. He has the most wins (688) and shutouts (124) in NHL history without defaulting to both knees to make every save, which is the preference for the vast majority of professional goalies, including St. Louis starter Brian Elliott and backup Jake Allen.

St. Louis Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur has the most wins (688) and shutouts (124) in NHL history.

Blues goaltender Martin Brodeur has the most wins (688)
and shutouts (124) in NHL history.
(Click photo to enlarge)

Elliott is out with a lower-body injury for the next couple of weeks at least, so the Blues signed Brodeur to an incentive-laden contract Tuesday. Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said Brodeur will start in goal Thursday against the Nashville Predators.

Brodeur won the Stanley Cup three times and the Vezina Trophy four times without relying on the butterfly. But as Brodeur, 42, starts a new chapter with the Blues, it's worth looking at how some of the unique characteristics of his approach manifest themselves on the ice, what role they may have played in a steeply declining save percentage the past four seasons, and how, or if, they will fit in St. Louis.

Let's start with the obvious positives: Brodeur was a pioneer when it came to puck-handling goaltenders and is on a short list among the all-time best at starting a breakout, which will fit nicely with how the Blues focus on trying to force their opponent to dump pucks into the zone. Brodeur also used his puck-handling to stay active and sharp while seeing fewer shots behind a stingy New Jersey defense, which is not easy and should serve him well behind a Blues team that was giving up 27.6 shots per game, the second-fewest in the NHL entering play Wednesday.

But there are questions how Brodeur's unique style fits behind that tight St. Louis defense.

Brodeur is a fantastic skater for a goalie, but his game has evolved. He has become less aggressive with his positioning against rush chances and during end-zone play, realizing less obstruction, increased speed by attacking players and more lateral movement of the puck were making it difficult for even the best skating goalies to recover the distance created by excessively challenging shooters.

Brodeur is more a pure read-and-react goalie, relying on instinct instead of technique. As such, he counts on seeing where shots are released.

New Jersey typically did a great job fulfilling his request to clear lanes so he could see the release, but when the Devils hired and fired coach Claude Julien in 2006-07, Brodeur told at the time it was his toughest season because the shot-blocking style left him dealing with "grenades" when pucks got through traffic.

So how does that fit in St. Louis?

The Blues are middle-of-the-pack when it comes to shot-blocking numbers, relying more on puck pressure to thwart attacks. But under coach Ken Hitchcock they do collapse to the front of the net, so Brodeur may have to fight harder for the sight lines he craves.

That collapsing defense should serve Brodeur well on rebounds because the Blues do a good job clearing out and cleaning up second chances in front of the net. Brodeur, who plays with softer equipment than many of his peers, tends to leave shorter rebounds.

It's here we also see some effects of Brodeur bucking the butterfly trend.

Though most see the butterfly as a simple save selection, it quickly evolved to include efficient recoveries which allowed goalies to move left or right without having to get back up on both skates first. As a goalie slid to the left or right, the technique took away the bottom of the net. Without the first part of that equation, Brodeur, for the most part, also lacks the second.

Martin Brodeur
Goalie - STL
Record: 688-394-105-71
GAA: 2.24 | Sv%: .912
He will use a standard butterfly at times, albeit a more narrow one than customary, with his feet behind him rather than spread wide, but he tends to use a half-butterfly more, dropping one knee to the ice (most often his right knee on clean chances), accompanied by the blocker and paddle of his stick. Visual evidence of this preference comes in the form of all the puck marks on the inside edge of each leg pad, an area which is unblemished on almost every other NHL goalie.

The half-butterfly can limit Brodeur's recovery to the side with the raised knee and leave him lunging and scrambling. Brodeur lunges and scrambles with the best of them, but that inefficiency limits the range of his recovery.

When Brodeur does butterfly now, it is with modernized pads.

He finally added a proper kneestack in 2012, and those flaps on the inside edge of the pad provide a landing spot for his knees while the rest of the pad rotates around his leg to seal the ice. Brodeur also added an inch-and-a-half to the top of his pads and finally eliminated the taper above his knee, so they are now the full 11 inches wide at the top, two inches wider than they were three years ago. And his glove got bigger as Brodeur finally moving to the NHL maximum 45-inch circumference in the 2012-13 season. It's all crucial inches of extra coverage when it gets harder and harder to make clean saves.

The way Brodeur wears his pads, however, can leave him exposed to low shots, especially through his legs.

Not only does his narrow butterfly not provide as much coverage width, but it makes it more difficult to get the top of the pads closed in front of his five-hole. And because Brodeur wears his pads really tight on his skates, the top of the pad flares open farther in front of his knees, creating a V-shaped hole. That, combined with his abandonment of a butterfly style designed to take away the bottom of the net, may explain why Brodeur seems more vulnerable on shots along the ice, and why teams have targeted him there in recent years, including Devils teammates playing for the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics facing Brodeur in the Canada net.

Brodeur is predominantly old-school in his approach to post play, sometimes using rough variations of modern post-integration techniques but more often standing up and squaring up on sharp-angle attacks, which led to some goals from below the bottom of the faceoff circles last season. It's another area teams may try to target.

In the end, the Blues are hoping none of it matters. For all these style quirks and flaws, Brodeur is one of the game's elite goaltenders. He has won those 688 games, including five more than he lost last season (19-14-6) despite a .901 save percentage.

Brodeur never has been about trends or conformity in his two decades in the NHL. He does things his way and it has worked more often than not. It will be the plan he follows in St. Louis for however long his stay lasts there.

As long as he keeps winning, that's all that matters to the Blues.

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