Five years ago on this very date, the winningest goaltender in NHL history decided he was done adding to his league-record total. After a seven-game stint with the St. Louis Blues, a tenure that will become useless trivia some years from now when his stay in the Show Me State is all but forgotten, Martin Brodeur announced his retirement.
When he called it a career, Brodeur did so in ownership of his fair share of NHL marks. He held the shutout record, games-played record and minutes record. He was also atop the all-time list of post-season shutouts and starts. Add to it the second-most wins in playoff history, four Vezina Trophies, the Calder Trophy and, later, entrance into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Brodeur left the game as arguably the most decorated netminder in NHL history. But when asked about the one individual accomplishment that stood out upon his retirement, Brodeur didn’t hum and haw.
“If you play hockey, you might as well win,” he told reporters. “The most important record is the wins record that I have.”
And at 691 wins, there’s reason to believe that’s not only a record with which Brodeur retired, but one that will forever remain unbroken.
It’s a mark that makes Brodeur not only the first goaltender to reach the 650-win milestone, but the only keeper to eclipse 600 career victories. His all-time mark also puts him so far ahead of the rest of the pack that it borders on ludicrous. Don’t believe it? How about this: Brodeur has won 140 games more than the second-winningest goaltender, Patrick Roy. Of the 808 goaltenders to play at least one game in NHL history, 665 have won fewer games than that spread between Brodeur’s league record and Roy’s 551 career victories.
To be sure, a few netminders have scaled the record book since Brodeur’s retirement. Notably, Marc-Andre Fleury has moved into fifth on the all-time list, where, as of this writing, he sits tied with Henrik Lundqvist. But neither is a threat to surpass the legendary New Jersey Devils netminder, not with both on the back nine of their respective careers and some 230-plus wins behind Brodeur. Much more likely is that Fleury hunts down and passes Roy, and some even consider that a 50-50 proposition.
That no true modern-day challenger has arisen and that those who at one point or another looked like potential pursuers of Brodeur’s record have since settled into a chase for second place are only two reasons why the legendary keeper is almost assuredly anchored into top spot in the record book. Mind you, neither reason precludes an up-and-comer from throwing his hat into the ring, but there are four factors that make it near impossible to fathom a scenario in which another keeper climbs the list and reaches quite the heights of Brodeur.
First and foremost, there’s a matter of longevity. Brodeur’s career spanned parts of 22 seasons, and Brodeur was the No. 1 netminder or split-time starter in 20 of those campaigns. In part, what allowed Brodeur to play as long as he did was that he was given the reigns at an early age by the Devils. He first played in the NHL as a 19-year-old, appearing in four games, and was a full-time keeper in New Jersey by the time he was a 21-year-old. In the modern era, when goaltenders are often left to marinate in the minors for a few seasons, such instances of a fresh-faced keeper earning a split-starter role or more are an extreme rarity.
Only five times in the post-lockout era has a goaltender played more than 35 games in a single season prior to his age 22 season. Those seasons belong to Fleury (2005-06), Carey Price (2007-08, 2008-09) and Steve Mason (2008-09, 2009-10). By the same token, only five goaltenders have played more than 80 total games in the post-lockout era before the culmination of their age 22 campaign, a list that includes the three aforementioned netminders, as well as Cam Ward and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Thus, if the trend of the past decade-plus is to be believed, there will be few goaltenders who get a start as young.
Factoring into Brodeur’s longevity, of course, is that he also remained the starter in New Jersey well into his late-30s and was part of a platoon until his final season with the Devils at 41. That is also an incredibly rare feat, as Brodeur is one of only five goaltenders in NHL history to appear in more than 180 games from the beginning of their respective age 38 seasons and beyond.
What can’t be overlooked, either, is durability. That Brodeur remained in good health throughout his career – he missed more than 10 games in a single season due to injury just once – and that he was able to avoid succumbing to the tweaks and strains and pulls that have put other goaltenders on the injured list for long stretches played a big part in his ability to play into his late-30s and early-40s. And that durability allowed Brodeur to shoulder a workload that no other keeper in NHL history ever has.
By his third full season with the Devils, Brodeur had his first season of 70-plus appearances under his belt, a campaign that was subsequently followed by another 11 campaigns in which he played at least 67 games and a streak of 10 consecutive seasons with at least 70 games played. By the conclusion of his career, Brodeur had played 65 or more games in 13 NHL campaigns. To put that into context, no other netminder in league history is in double digits – Glenn Hall had nine seasons of 65 games or more – and no modern goaltender comes even close. Longtime Calgary Flames netminder Miikka Kiprusoff's seven 65-plus game seasons is the best of any netminder who was a contemporary of Brodeur's.
It’s not just that no other netminder has had that workload that stands to separate Brodeur from the pack for what could be eternity, though. It’s that the trend has been and continues to be an increased focus on resting top keepers and decreasing the number of starts a No. 1 has in a given season. All but gone are the days of the 70-game goaltender and with it any likelihood that a keeper will have as many opportunities to pile up wins. That makes the margin for error slimmer. Even the best goaltenders of this era and eras to come will have difficulty compiling the equivalent of 20 seasons of at least 30 wins if those campaigns are spent playing 50-or-so games each season.
And speaking of wins, it’s prolonged consistency that might be the most difficult feat of Brodeur’s to replicate. At a time when keepers are playing fewer games and the NHL is more parity driven than ever, it seems difficult to fathom any goaltender matching Brodeur’s record of 14 30-win campaigns. It seems even more unreasonable, possibly even laughable, to expect any netminder to match his mark of eight 40-win seasons. There are six keepers with three such seasons – Braden Holtby recently joined the club – but not a single netminder other than Brodeur with more.
Does that mean no one will ever come close to Brodeur? Not necessarily. Fleury’s certainly taking his shot. If the 35-year-old maintains his current winning pace, he’ll end this campaign 82 wins behind Roy’s second-place mark. It seems well within reason, particularly if Fleury plays another three or four seasons, that he could move into second on the all-time list. But the moment he pulls level with Roy and gets that one win to take sole possession of second, Fleury will still remain 139 wins back of Brodeur. That's not an easy gap to close. That's a chasm. So chances are as close as Fleury comes is as close as anyone will well into the future – quite possibly ever.
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