This year, Martin Brodeur is having probably the best year of his career. He is leading all of the traditional goaltending categories (GAA, wins, shutouts), and he is, most unusually for him, ranked near the top of the league in save percentage.
What gives? Is this the counterargument that defeats all the Brodeur-bashers? Does this show that Brodeur is really good after all? Should we start anointing him as the best ever and waive the Hall-of-Fame entry period?
The answer that Brodeur is certainly having an excellent year by his standards. However, he is still playing for the New Jersey Devils, who despite a fair amount of roster turnover and all the NHL’s rule changes still play the same patient, disciplined style that is very effective at limiting chances. Brodeur is still not the best goalie in the league. If I dare say it, he may not even be in the top 5.
The New Jersey Devils are good at preventing shots, ranked 8th in the league in shots against with 28.8 per game. They are outstanding at preventing dangerous shots. Brodeur’s shots are the easiest shots faced by any goalie. Hockey Numbers has the shot quality against for Brodeur at 0.79, meaning that the opposition's scoring chances are 21% less dangerous than average. A middle-of-the-road NHL starting goalie playing for the Devils would therefore be expected to have a save percentage of around .925, which makes Brodeur’s .928 look much less impressive.
One of the main reasons why it is so relatively easy to play goalie for the Devils is their amazing team discipline. They are ranked 7th in penalty kill efficiency, and are probably about the 10th best unit when you consider shorthanded goals as well. However, they have been shorthanded a mere 175 times to lead the NHL by a large margin, and as a result have conceded 6 fewer shorthanded goals than any other team in the league.
To put this into perspective, the Montreal Canadiens have an excellent penalty kill and are ranked 3rd in efficiency. They have also scored 13 shorthanded goals to lead the NHL. They have a net minus on the penalty kill of 25 goals, which is exactly the same as New Jersey’s. The difference is the number of opportunities.
Brodeur is pretty good on the penalty kill in terms of save percentage, with a .921 shot-quality adjusted shorthanded save percentage (8th in the NHL). But in today’s NHL, where the power play is increasingly important and the best scoring chances often come with the man advantage, facing the fewest number of them is a tremendous advantage.
An average goalie (like, say, Marc-Andre Fleury) playing Brodeur’s minutes for New Jersey and facing the same shots would be expected to post a .925 save percentage, a 2.20 goals against average, and about 5 shutouts. Given that the Devils score 2.6 goals per game they would be expected to have a winning record (hockey’s Pythagorean equation suggests about 60 points, which still would put them in first place in the Atlantic Division). Based on the average league rate of wins to points, that’s about 27 wins.
In summary compared to Brodeur:
Brodeur: .928 save %, 2.03 GAA, 30 wins, 9 shutouts
Average goalie: .925 save %, 2.20 GAA, 26 wins, 5 shutouts
Based on shot-quality neutral measures of efficiency, Brodeur is the 10th best goalie in the league. Of course he plays just about every game, so he should be rewarded for his extra effort. That puts him probably around number 5 or 6, behind Luongo, Kiprusoff, Mason, Kolzig, and maybe Huet. Giguere would have been ahead as well, except for his injury.
None of this changes the fact that Brodeur is going to win the Vezina unanimously and get nominated for the Hart Trophy, and he could very well win that as well. Let’s hope he thanks the Devils in his speech, though, as they are once again doing the heavy lifting behind the scenes.