NHL goaltenders take it to the limit

Since October 1995, New Jersey Devils Lou Lamoriello has been able to count on at least 67 starts from future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur. But he is no longer the envy of his fellow NHL general managers.

Injuries strike down even the most stalwart netminders

St. Louis Blues executive John Davidson says Devils' Martin Brodeur and other NHL goalies are stretching their bodies to the limit, making them increasingly susceptible to injury. ((Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press))

Since October 1995, New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello has been extremely fortunate in at least one aspect of his job.

In each of the subsequent 12 NHL seasons, he has been able to count on at least 67 starts from future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.

But after years of success that has included three Stanley Cup titles with his durable netminder on board, Lamoriello is no longer the envy of every league GM. Brodeur tore his biceps on Nov. 1 and could miss the rest of the season.

"I think he hurt his knee a little while back but other than that, this guy has been as durable as you could ever imagine," said former NHL goalie Glenn Healy, one of several hockey people who discussed the overuse of NHL goalies with CBCSports.ca for its three-part series examining the rise in injuries at the position.

Brodeur's luck ran out after countless hours of practice and a combined 68,310 minutes of play in NHL regular season and playoff games. Many of his brethren haven't been near as lucky, while the few that have, probably will encounter problems down the road.

Through the first seven weeks of this season, injuries beset no fewer than 17 NHL goalies, including 12 starters.

The most serious injury was to Brodeur, followed by Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, who is sidelined week to week after straining his left groin on a routine save at Pittsburgh on Nov. 22.

Luongo had played in at least 72 of his team's 82 games in each of the past four campaigns.

Pro athletes on borrowed time

"Athletes as a whole, no matter the sport, are on borrowed time in terms of what our bodies can handle, how long we can play and more importantly, how long we're able to cheat injury," said 10-year NHL veteran Kevin Weekes, who is now sharing the Devils' goaltending chores with Scott Clemmensen.

"In professional sports, there are so many repetitions every day that you practice, whether it's swinging a golf club, a bat, fielding or catching pucks. It's only a matter of time [until you hurt yourself]."

Healy, who retired in 2001 after 437 NHL games, suggested an argument could be made that there is no down time for today's players.

The former Los Angeles King, Toronto Maple Leaf, New York Ranger and New York Islander recalled playing organized hockey for only seven months as a youngster.

"It's a 12-month job now and there are lots of kids that would like your job and they're creeping up on you pretty quick," said Healy, now the director of player affairs for the NHL Players' Association. "At some point, does that affect your ability to have that durability?

Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is sidelined week to week after straining his left groin making a routine save in a Nov. 22 game at Pittsburgh. ((Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press))

"You're into mid-June now if you go to the [Stanley Cup] final and that's a factor [in bodies breaking down], right?

"It's a litany of different things," continued Healy, "whether it's the travel, the amount these guys play the fact you can go to the net with free reign, the fact [goalies] are playing the butterfly style and the fact shots are harder."

The rash of injuries to goalies this season doesn't surprise St. Louis Blues president of hockey operations John Davidson. His club has suffered enough pain.

Blues lose 3 goalies in 2 months

Thirteen Blues sustained significant injuries over a six-week period, including three goalies. Rookie Ben Bishop injured his groin, Chris Mason had an emergency appendectomy and veteran Manny Legace tripped over a red carpet on home ice during a recent visit by ex-vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin.

"The game today is so fast these goaltenders really spread their bodies out," said Davidson, who tended goal for St. Louis and the New York Rangers in the 1970s and early '80s.

"Even when a player dekes them in the shootout they throw their legs wide apart, land on their chest and put their skates against the post. They're stretching their bodies to the limit.

"This is a league that plays a lot of games in a short period of time with big people and there's a lot of travel, a lot of late nights. It's hard and you're going to have [goalies suffer injuries]. Players are bigger, faster and the ice surface has not gotten bigger."

Guys like Brodeur and Luongo are doing it the most, making them susceptible to injury, but that is life when teams are operating under a $56.7 million salary cap.

Ten of the NHL's 30 teams are paying their No. 1 puckstopper $5 million or more this season, which likely increases the pressure on the respective coaches to play them as much as possible, no matter the injury risk.

"If I'm an [NHL] owner paying one guy $7 million, I want to see him play every night, too," Healy said.

What teams can't afford to do is spend more than $12 million combined on two masked men like the Chicago Blackhawks, who will fork over $6.75 million to Nikolai Khabibulin and $5.625 million to backup Cristobal Huet unless Dale Tallon can convince another GM to eat a portion of their salaries in a potential trade.

Weekes wondered if teams soon would be forced to cut back on the number of appearances by their starting goalie.

"I think some teams have already gone that direction and are more mindful of it," he said. "For us, Marty [Brodeur] is Marty and he's going to play pretty much every game. He programs himself to do that. It's hard to tell him he can't play because he's the best.

"Maybe going forward, he might play five to 10 less games a year."

Based on recent history, don't bet on it.

In Part 2, CBCSports.ca will look at the connection between injuries and the NHL's recent changes to rules and goalie equipment.