March 17, 2009

As Martin Brodeur eclipses Patrick Roy's career mark of 551 victories,'s NHL writers debate the New Jersey Devils netminder's place in the pantheon of greats. You can weigh in with your pick here.

Q: Who is the greatest goaltender of all time?

There is a rock-paper-scissors element to this eternal argument. Embarking on the fool's errand of ranking great goalies across the different eras, you begin with Terry Sawchuk. (Even a committed Brodeur guy like New Jersey goalie coach Jacques Caron lights up at the mention of Sawchuk.)

In a career that touched four decades, the NHL's shutout leader won two fewer Stanley Cups and three fewer Vezina Trophies than his contemporary, Jacques Plante, who popularized the mask. But Jake The Snake might not even be the greatest goalie in Canadiens history because Roy set the NHL record for career regular season and post-season wins and captured three Conn Smythes even though he never won a Hart Trophy like Dominik Hasek, who won two.

But then Brodeur is about to put the numbers into the stratosphere while holding the single-season record of 48 wins although the NHL schedule generally was a mere 70 games when Sawchuk and Plante . . .

See, like the Thrashers' rebuilding program, this just goes round and round. So let's try this:

At his absolute best, Hasek was better than anyone that I saw regularly. Roy had more extraordinary moments than any modern goalie -- a playoff overtime in the 1986 semifinals at Madison Square Garden his rookie season with Montreal leaps to mind -- while Brodeur, the best puck-handler by a mile, ultimately will leave with a wins total that might be unassailable. (Toronto coach Ron Wilson, however, thinks Brodeur's eventual shutout mark could be in reach.)

The guys who saw Sawchuk in his prime insist he was better than anybody while Plante, given his popularization of the mask, likely is the most important goalie ever.

Does that clear things up?

I get why my esteemed colleague has planted his behind firmly on the fence. Ranking goalies from different periods is not unlike comparing, say, Robin Zander at the height of his Budokan grandeur with Misfits-era Glen Danzig. Same position, different challenges. Faced with indisputable greatness, how do you pick one over the other? But honestly, Mike, this isn't as hard to call as you make it out to be.

This is a discussion we've all heard in countless dressing rooms and over too many beers. And after listening ad nauseum to all the arguments for Sawchuk, Plante, Hall, Dryden, Roy and Brodeur, if I had to win one game, I'm tapping the shoulder of the Dominator.

You know about the awards won by Hasek, and how they prove that no goalie ever matched up better against his peers. There were the six Vezinas between 1994 and 2001. Only Plante won more -- and most of his were gathered when he only had to beat out five other guys. Then there were the back-to-back Harts. No goalie can match that.

There was the disciplined but talent-light Sabres he carried to the Cup final in 1999 and the Detroit squad he led to the Promised Land in 2002. But what really separates Hasek from the rest was that brick wall aura. Sure, all the greats had it, but he was . . . different. Hasek in net was like the Death Star, the most dominant presence on the ice, only there were no tiny thermal exhaust ports to be exploited. There was a sense that he had an answer for anything that could be shot at him. That he had no predictable patterns, no tells. Like King Leonidas in 300, he gave you nothing and took from you . . . everything.

Too many cinematic similes? Maybe, but they illustrate how no goalie was better at getting into a shooter's head. No matter how many times you faced Hasek, that Gumby-on-skates routine was so unnerving that it took you out of your game and forced you into his. Brendan Shanahan, famously victimized in the shootout of the 1998 Olympic semi-final, said as much years later. He told me that, to a man, the Canadians knew they had to make the perfect shot if they were going to beat Hasek that day. "You think and then you second guess yourself and the next thing you know there are legs and arms everywhere and you've got nowhere left to go with [the puck]," Shanahan said.

To paraphrase Milt Schmidt, if a goalie comes along who is better then Hasek, may the good Lord let me be alive to see him because he is going to be one hell of a player to watch.

I'm going to offer up Vladislav Tretiak as the best ever and here's why: He bridged eras from both style-of-play and global perspectives. Let's look at the history, shall we?

In the beginning, Plante wrote the book -- literally -- on goaltending: strict standup fundamentals that influenced three generations of netminders, with the Flyers' Bernie Parent in the mid-70's being the most accomplished and obvious disciple. Parent's counterpoint contemporaries were Dryden and Tony Esposito -- both preferring to play on their knees, taking up space, focusing on low shots. They were both direct descendents of the first butterfly stylist -- Glenn Hall -- who himself borrowed the bottom-net-priority philosophy from a guy he saw in the American Hockey League.

The offense-happy 80's took its toll on goalies, increasingly incorporating side-to-side plays and drop passes to defensemen who were jumping up and joining the attack. Goaltending techniques remained divided and still mostly self-taught, with strict stand-up practitioners like Greg Millen adhering to Plante's teachings and drop-down advocates being represented best by the economical Mike Liut and the athletic and agile Grant Fuhr. These guys provided the bridge to the fully adjusted netminders of today -- the generation sacrificed to arrive at what Russian great Tretiak already knew.

Tretiak brought both styles together -- playing big with his upper body, while protecting the low corners with his pads forming a V. He also introduced a change in priorities -- the need to consider the offensive player on the weak side, rather than zeroing in solely on the puck carrier. Tretiak's controlled butterfly style -- playing a little deeper in the crease to protect against the cross-ice pass -- is now the norm in the NHL, adopted by virtually everyone and turned into an art form by Roy, who further refined Tretiak's mechanics on plays in tight by playing neither the shot nor the pass. Roy chose to play percentages only by spreading out and taking away as much net as possible.

If imitation is truly the highest form of flattery, then Tretiak's role in redefining the position -- particularly when considering how the North American game was evolving to add more European influences on the attack -- makes him the greatest goaltender of all time.

I've commented before on this so I will not stray from my basic argument. You can make your best argument for who the greatest goaltender all time is or is going to be, but when you start the debate, the one thing that's a given is that, over time, Brodeur will have the numbers that just scream "winner."

I think Plante is in the debate. I can make a case for Sawchuk, Hasek, Roy, Hall and maybe even Dryden, Parent, Fuhr, and some true old-school netminders like Georges Vezina and George Hainsworth. But when you factor in different eras, and the changes in coaching and equipment, the argument becomes next to impossible. Still, Brodeur is going to hold the mark for most wins and shutouts and he's already regarded as one of the all-time clutch playoff performers (three Stanley Cups) as well as a superb puck-handler, a talent that adds to his overall ability in terms of not only preventing goals but helping create them.

Dryden created a new era. Sawchuk was painfully brilliant. Hasek was like a comet streaking across the hockey skies. Roy exhibited an intensity and purpose that you had to witness to believe. All of the greats created their moments in their time, but Brodeur has the entire package. So when the debate really gets going, it's difficult not to move his name to the top of the list. He will surpass Sawchuk's mark for career shutouts (103) and Roy's career wins (551) and he will do it with numbers that stand for a very long time. When you have that on your resume, you're as good as it gets.

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