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2009 NHLer of the Year: Martin Brodeur

Not since 1981, when Wayne Gretzky broke important records held by Phil Esposito (points), Bobby Orr (assists), Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy (fastest 50 goals), has one player made such a broad-spectrum assault on the record book in one calendar year as Martin Brodeur did in 2009. Unlike Gretzky, who in '81 was making his first assault on seasonal records and the storied names that held them, Brodeur was writing new sections on the career records page. Not that that makes them any less impressive, but perhaps explains why his name was once again omitted when the Lou Marsh Award was being discussed.

Brodeur's legacy is one of longevity, endurance, and consistent excellence over a very extended period. The man has been a machine at compiling numbers across a very wide statistical spectrum. Consider the following career milestones achieved by Brodeur in 2009:

  • March 1: Recorded his 100th career shutout with a 3-0 blanking of Philadelphia.
  • March 14: Tied Patrick Roy's career record of 551 regular season Wins by with a 3-1 victory right in Marty's home town of Montreal over Roy's old club Les Habitants.
  • March 17: At next opportunity, set a new career Wins mark with his 552nd, a 3-2 home win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
  • April 23: Tied Roy's record of 23 playoff shutouts with a 44-save, 1-0 win over Carolina.
  • November 4: Tied Roy's record of 997 career decisions in a 3-2 home win over Washington.
  • November 7: Broke Roy's record with his 998th career decision, a 3-2 win at Ottawa.
  • November 27: Passed Roy's record of 60,235 minutes played during a 2-1 shootout win at Boston.
  • December 7: Tied Terry Sawchuk's NHL record of 103 career shutouts with a 3-0 whitewash at Buffalo. 
  • December 16: Tied Roy's record of 1,029 career GP during a 2-1 home win over Montreal.
  • December 18: Broke Roy's record with his 1,030th GP, a 4-2 win over Ottawa.
  • December 19: Yanked after allowing 3 first period goals in Atlanta, recorded his first no-decision since November 10, 2000, crystallizing his personal mark at 571 consecutive games played with a decision. This is NOT a record (Sawchuk for one never had a no-decision until his 11th season) but is surely a modern standard during the two-goalie era, likely by a very wide margin.
  • December 21: Broke Sawchuk's NHL record and tied George Hainsworth's major league record with his 104th career shutout, a 4-0 blanking of the Stanley Cup champions right in Pittsburgh.
  • December 30: Broke Hainsworth's major league record with his 105th career shutout, a 2-0 home win over Pittsburgh. Also was named to Canada's Olympic team for the fourth time, a distinction he shares with just Chris Pronger in men's hockey. (Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Jennifer Botterill, and Becky Kellar have matched this feat on the womer's side.)

That's a pretty amazing last couple of months. A common factor in all those games is that the Devils won them all, and by oh-so-typical scores. The only one where they put as many as 5 goals on the board was that one anomaly in Atlanta, where Brodeur got pulled after the first period and the team roared back to take him off the hook, eventually winning 5-4.

The Devils on the winning end of low-scoring games has been a frequent outcome since Brodeur's arrival in Jersey in 1993-94. How frequent? Have a gander at the graph after the jump.  


Click to enlarge. The three lines on the graph represent the Devils standings Points (blue), Goals For (green) and Goals Against (red) since 1987. All are expressed as a percentage of league average, meaning that variations in league wide goal-scoring and the darned Bettman point have both been factored out. Note that the two positive values, points and GF, are expressed as NJD over league average; whereas the negative one that is GA is expressed as the inverse of that (league average over NJD). Thus the objective in all three cases is to attain results greater than 100%.

Note also how closely the team's points mirrors its defensive record, with both being routinely excellent while offensive performance has been all over the map.  

The years before Brodeur arrived the Devils were a slightly above average team. In 1992-93 they scored at 101% of the league rate, and defended at 102%, for a points yield of 103.6% above the league norm (then a reliable .500). Brodeur arrived in '93-94, winning the Calder Trophy. The Devils' defensive record immediately soared to 123.6% of league and the team's results soared right alongside, finishing second overall behind the New York Rangers, the club that eventually eliminated the Devils in the conference finals in 7th game double OT.

The following, lockout-shortened season, the Devils fared less well in the regular season, but rolled to a surprise Stanley Cup, starting every series on the road. Brodeur held the opposition to 2 goals or fewer in all 16 Devils victories. Many folks credited/blamed Jacques Lemaire's notorious Neutral Zone Trap for this outcome, but the kid at the back end who fielded the shoot-ins and started the puck on its way out of the defensive zone again and again likely deserved more credit than he got at the time.

The next year the Devils were still powerful defensively, but the team's offence completely tanked to just 83.3% of league levels, and the squad missed the playoffs. Scoring issues were subsequently addressed, and while rarely great, were never again so terrible. The Devils have been a fixture in the playoffs ever since, as their defensive performance has fluctuated between merely excellent and truly outstanding, never once falling to within 10% of league average during Brodeur's stellar career, now in its 16th season.

The closest thing to a blip happened during the Robbie Ftorek/Larry Robinson years of 1998-2002, when the Devils put an unaccustomed emphasis on offence. Even during those seasons their defensive record remained strong, between 110% to 116% of league rates. Brodeur's save percentage took a bit of a hit during those four seasons, falling to just above the league average rather than his typical 10 to 15 points higher than that. Based on that one category, some analysts - primarily those devotees of what I laughingly call the Church of Save Percentology - ascribe to him an extended mid-career slump. I note that he carried on playing 70+ games annually, winning 40+ of those, plus a Stanley Cup, two Conference titles, and Olympic Gold during that span, as evidence he was still playing alright. My own guess is that while that team excelled at shot prevention (in large part due to Brodeur's ongoing contributions in this respect), the shots they did allow against the flow of play perhaps tended to be of higher quality. For sure the rest of Brodeur's stats -- Wins, Shutouts, GAA -- suffered hardly at all; it was like his batting average dropped from .340 to .310 while he kept right on scoring and driving in 125 runs a year.

In 2001-02 the Devils returned to their underscoring ways, so Lou Lamoriello fired Robinson, hired Kevin Constantine and turned the emphasis back to defensive play. In 2003 they captured their third Cup, the second of which was achieved by a club that didn't score at even the league average rate. Brodeur recorded 7 shutouts in the playoffs, breaking Dominik Hasek's record of 6 in one postseason.

Subsequent Devils teams have struggled to reach league average scoring rates, while defensively the club has continued to excel. After the lockout the club lost the core of its defence with the retirements of Scott Steves and Ken Daneyko and the free agent defections of Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski, and by and large replaced them with a bunch of no-names. Moreover, the New NHL featured a no-go trapezoid for goaltenders - widely known as the Brodeur Rule - which limited but hardly eliminated Brodeur's outstanding strengths in puck retrieval and distribution. New coaches followed with different systems, but one constant remained: Martin Brodeur, mainstay of the defence. Despite all the changes the club's defensive record remained strong, notably finishing second in the East in 2006-07 despite an offence that scored at just 89.3% of the league rate (27th overall). That season Brodeur won a remarkable 20 games in which his team scored 2 or fewer real goals.

Brodeur still has a few mountains to climb, notably in the playoffs where his impressive record nonetheless must play second fiddle to that of Patrick Roy, at least when measured in GP and Wins. Next up is a mark for the asterisk crowd: Brodeur has won 33 games via shootout, a new wrinkle not in play during Roy's career. Thus Brodeur has 550 Wins in regulation or overtime, whereas Roy had 551. The record book has become shifting sands in Gary Bettman's NHL; all the guy can do is keep playing, and winning, by the rules, whatever they may be.

I'm not here to say Marty Brodeur is the greatest goalie of all time - I'll leave that to the eminent hockey people in the video at bottom. From my perspective he's still making his case, and statistically it is a strong one indeed. After years of inexorable build-up he has begun to frequently overwrite some of the greatest names in the record book - Hainsworth, Sawchuk, Roy - with his own.

I do think the case can already be made that Martin Brodeur is the most efficient netminder the game has ever seen.