Martin Brodeur’s 125th and final NHL shutout, with the exception of the fact it was recorded with the St. Louis Blues, was a fairly routine affair. He faced just 16 shots and made a couple of big stops in the first period, but in general terms had a fairly easy night.
Brodeur’s critics will try to diminish his laundry list of accomplishments by saying that Brodeur had far too many nights like that during his career, that he was the beneficiary of playing for teams that played defensive hockey with a religious zeal and didn’t allow chances, either in high number or high quality, that most other goaltenders had to face.
And when you put Brodeur’s numbers against his two most comparable contemporaries – Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy – the numbers sort of bear that out. Brodeur faced an average of roughly 25 shots per game throughout his career, while Roy (27.6 per game) and Hasek (27.5) were subjected to almost three shots per game more.
But as Brodeur officially announces his retirement from the NHL today, it’s important to take into account two factors that bring him much more closely in line with the all-time greats of the game. (It's interesting how many all-time greats played for the Blues at the end of this careers. Grant Fuhr, Glenn Hall, Jacques Plante and Tom Barrasso all had late-career stints with the Blues.)
First, consider the team for which Brodeur played the vast majority of his career. That the Brodeur-led New Jersey Devils will go down in history as one of the most dominant defensive juggernauts in the history of the game is a given. But along with that defensive excellence came a team that didn’t score many goals. The Devils played a boring defensive style, but they also didn’t generate much at the other end. That meant Brodeur had to be sharp almost all the time, something made more difficult by the fact that he wasn’t tested as often as the goalie at the other end.
There are goaltenders in the game who are better when they get more work. Curtis Joseph, whom Brodeur replaced in goal to lead Canada to its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years, is a good example. He was a star playing for the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams for which he was required to carry a heavy workload, then struggled playing for the Detroit Red Wings.
One need not look any further than Brodeur’s shutouts to illustrate that point. Of Brodeur’s 125 shutouts, 57 of them were recorded in games that were won by scores of 2-0 or 1-0. An additional three came in 0-0 games (including one 1-0 shootout loss, which goes in the books as a shutout). Brodeur has 30 1-0 wins in his career, meaning almost a quarter of his shutouts were won by one-goal margins. Overall, almost half his shutouts involved a game in which the Devils scored two or fewer goals.
“We’re not getting four or five goals and they’re always tight games,” Brodeur once said. “So every time, you’re under the gun. I just can’t sit and relax.”
Secondly, if you’re going to take into account the number of shots Brodeur faced, you can’t do that without examining another reason why he faced fewer shots. And that was because Brodeur was indisputably the greatest puckhandling goaltender the game has ever seen. How many chances did he nullify by getting the puck on his stick and turning the play the other way? Thousands, probably. With the Devils, it was pointless to try to dump the puck in, then try to retrieve it and get a cycle going because Brodeur was almost always going to handle it himself. And how many years did Brodeur add to the careers of Devils defensemen who were spared the pain of kissing the glass after being nailed into the boards by an opposing forechecker?
Anytime a league changes a rule essentially because of the effect one player has had on the game, that’s a lasting legacy. Many goaltenders tried, sometimes with disastrous results, to replicate Brodeur’s puckhandling, but none has ever come close to matching it.
The interesting thing about Brodeur is that prior to his NHL career, he gave little indication he was going to become a dominant NHL goaltender. In fact, there were some who doubted whether he’d even be an NHL regular. He wasn’t even projected as a first-round pick in the 1990 draft, but the Devils took him with the second-last pick of the first round. Brodeur was a good, but not great, goaltender in junior hockey. He registered just four career shutouts in the Quebec League and did not win any individual awards. And his first and only year in the minors was rather ordinary.
But that all changed, almost from the moment Brodeur came into the NHL. He now holds almost every goaltending record imaginable and there’s nobody in the game today that is even close to catching him in the vast majority of them. Not bad for a guy whose goals when he began his career were about as modest as the man himself.
“When I started my career, I just wanted to just get one game in the NHL,” Brodeur once said. “Then it was just one win.”
Many, many more of both followed in the next two decades, earning Brodeur a worthy spot among the greatest players ever to occupy an NHL net. Is he the best of all-time? With Roy and Hasek in the conversation, it would be a lively debate. Plante, Ken Dryden, Hall and Terry Sawchuk are names from the past who also could carry that mantle.
But there is absolutely no doubt that Brodeur deserves his place among them.