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Breaking the Myth of Martin Brodeur
By: Chris Andreou
If you ask NHL diehards, casual fans, or anyone who knows even a little about hockey who the best goalie of all-time is, more often than not you will hear the name Martin Brodeur. Looking at the goaltender who leads the NHL in wins (691), games played (1,266), shots against (31,709), saves (28,928), and shutouts (125), in addition to the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year, four Vezinas for goalie of the year, and three Stanley Cups, you’d be forgiven for not giving another passing thought at this claim. Even nhl.com recently posted a ranking that had Brodeur safely at the top of the greatest goalies of all time, so surely there is no debate to be had. Besides, if he’s good enough for Seinfeld’s David Puddy, then he must be the best, right?
However, this uncritical insistence of Brodeur’s superiority is not only incorrect, but it exposes the hockey community for falling for a “legend” narrative that lacks the advanced statistics to back it up. Brodeur is one of the greatest goaltenders of all time. But due to his career played mostly with a team that perfected offense-killing hockey, Brodeur was able to amass win after win and shutout after shutout by merely playing well enough, while his top competitors stood on their heads each night. The purpose of this article is not to argue about who is the best of all time, but rather to readjust the debate to where it should be - with Brodeur merely in the conversation. Now, there is no shortage of mainstream articles in addition to “Marty-truthers” who make the same claim I am making here. However, if you dare scroll to the comments of some of these articles, stating that Brodeur is overrated is controversial, to put it mildly. But in order to ensure the integrity of the goaltending position moving forward, the hockey community must break free from the myth of Martin Brodeur.
Becoming a hockey fan in 2003 at the ripe age of 10 provided me with the opportunity to watch Brodeur in some of his statistically best years. As I started a youth hockey career as a goalie, I watched as he won all four of his Vezina Trophies, endearing himself to many young athletes across North America. And yet, going through goalie camps at the start of each season we would hear the same thing from coaches: “he may be your favourite goalie but do not try to play like him … or Dominik Hasek.” I personally never had that problem as I despised both of their playing styles (or lack thereof), but could not discount the success it brought them. But as I watched him rack up wins and shutouts, I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t seem very busy. As my hockey fandom became further entrenched, in the midst of a tsunami of “Brodeur is the greatest'' sentiment, I never really saw it. How could a goalie who has never won a Hart Trophy for league MVP or Conn Smythe for playoff MVP be considered the best of all-time when his peers Dominik Hasek won two of the former, and Patrick Roy three of the latter? Heck, even Jose Theodore won a Hart Trophy.
For hockey fans or casual North American sports fans, it is no secret that Brodeur played the majority of his years in hockey’s lowest scoring era. In fact, his New Jersey Devils are the team that pioneered and perfected the system. The neutral zone trap, as it became to be known, would suffocate the opposition’s offense by clogging up the neutral zone, and make one or two goal leads practically untouchable. The system is almost unanimously regarded as a scourge on professional hockey, and something that made certain games nearly unwatchable. The popularization of the trap is widely credited to the Brodeur-era Devils teams and their two legendary defensemen Scott Niedermeyer and Scott Stevens, and prompted a decade-long decline in scoring rates grimly regarded as the “Dead Puck Era”.
But it isn’t until you do a deep-dive into the single games that one gains an appreciation for how much it benefited goalies on teams who perfected it. Upon breaking into the league with a run to the Eastern Conference finals in 1994 and subsequently winning the Stanley Cup in 1995, Brodeur was a regular in the NHL playoffs, only missing it twice in 1996 and 2011, making his final appearance in 2012. That in itself is remarkable and deserves a lot of credit, but what is even more remarkable is that in nearly half of his 204 playoff games beginning in 1994, Brodeur faced less than 25 shots. Adjusting for games that went to overtime, Brodeur faced 20 or less shots in 30% of his games. His playoff record from 2000 - 2003, where Brodeur and the Devils went to three Stanley Cup Finals, winning twice, is the most telling of all. In these 77 games, representing nearly 40% of his playoff experience, Brodeur faced 20 or less shots in one-third of his games. Games where he faced between 21-25 shots represent another third, with the final third being 25 shots and above (though it is important to note that 40% of those games went to overtime). Except in 1994, in all of the Devil’s playoff runs that went beyond the first round, Brodeur faced well below the playoff average in shots against. The epitome of these inactive performances came in game seven of the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs where Brodeur pitched a six save shutout. Impressive for a Premier League goalkeeper perhaps, but in hockey it is downright laughable. When analyzing these figures it comes as no surprise why Brodeur never won any MVP honours while his peers did. Brodeur simply had to be good enough and his team would win, whereas Hasek and Roy needed to be on top of their game for their teams to win.
Despite the lack of playoff heroics, a large reason why Brodeur retains such a hold on the national consciousness is his part in Canada’s gold medal win at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. The 5-2 win against the Americans broke a 50 year gold medal drought for Canada and set off a wave of national pride. But just like his NHL environment, Brodeur was surrounded by one of the best teams to ever hit the ice, which only required solid but not spectacular performances from their goaltender. After replacing Curtis Joseph as starter in game 2, Brodeur allowed 2 goals on 20 shots in a 3-2 win against a then-unremarkable German team, and 3 goals on 23 shots in a 3-3 tie against Dominik Hasek and his Czechs. Somehow, his job became easier in the elimination rounds. Facing a combined 33 shots across two games, the quarter-finals against Finland and semi-finals against Belarus, Brodeur was right at home in his relatively untouched end of the ice. And few seem to remember that eight years later, it was Brodeur who would be replaced after early poor performances in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, leaving Roberto Luongo to lead Team Canada to another gold medal.
Brodeur is clearly overrated, but this is not to say he isn’t one of the best goaltenders to ever play the game. His statistics, awards, and records alone put him safely in the top ten and he should rightfully be mentioned alongside the greats, both of his day and across the history of the NHL. But for the sake of the sport’s and position’s integrity, the unquestioned unanimous belief that he is the greatest goalie of all-time must be put to rest.
The Patrick Roys, Domink Haseks, and Ed Belfours of the world who regularly stood on their head and willed their teams to wins they had no business winning belong in this discussion as much or more than Brodeur. Pretending otherwise is an insult to every excellent NHL goalie who wasn’t lucky enough to play on an outstanding defensive team in the most low scoring era of hockey. Blind reverence to Brodeur does a disservice to the most important position in hockey. Martin Brodeur is not the best goaltender of all time, and it is time the hockey community acknowledged that.