The Olympic gold medal win was huge for Martin Brodeur. Even though it looked like he would not even get a chance to play in Salt Lake, Patrick Roy's withdrawal and Curtis Joseph's stumble gave him the good fortune to enter the spotlight, and he seized the opportunity well enough to help his team to victory.
In the four years prior to the Olympics, Brodeur was considered a good goalie, but never the best in the game. His rankings in the Vezina trophy voting from 1999-2002 were 4th, 5th, 3rd, and 5th. The year after his gold medal, however, he won his first Vezina trophy. In 2004, he added another. Let's take a look at Brodeur's seasons to see if much had changed:
1999-02: 72 GP, 41-21-10, 2.25, .907, 6 SO (averages)
2002-03: 73 GP, 41-23-9, 2.02, .914, 9 SO
2003-04: 75 GP, 38-26-11, 2.03, .917, 11 SO
Brodeur actually averaged more wins and fewer losses over the 99-02 period than in either of his Vezina Trophy winning seasons. His save percentage was a bit lower, but his GAA was always near the top of the league, and it has traditionally been GAA and wins that determines the Vezina winner. During that period, three different goalies won the Vezina, so it was not as if Brodeur was up against one main rival who always outperformed him. His performance did improve, but the main difference appears to not have been his stats, but how he was viewed around the league, a reputation that seems to have been greatly enhanced by his performance in Salt Lake City.
Does it make sense that the perception of Brodeur should have changed in this way? Frankly, no. Brodeur was not exceptional during the 2002 Olympics, he was not any better than solid. In addition, he had a strong body of work both in the regular season and the playoffs that was much more indicative of his ability than a small sample of five games in an international tournament, only three of which were against good teams. In addition, if Roy had elected to play, it is very likely that Brodeur would never have gotten out of the press box during the Olympics. We'll never know if Canada would have won the gold, but it certainly isn't unlikely that Roy would have played as well as or better than Brodeur.
Could the 2002 Olympics have been a personal breakthrough for Brodeur? Evidence appears that it may have been. In the 4 seasons from 1998-99 to 2001-02, Brodeur had four of the five lowest save percentages of his career. Since the end of the 2002 season, his save percentage has been .916, compared to .911 before. Although his career peak was probably 1996-1998, Brodeur has experienced a renaissance of sorts since Salt Lake City. However, as always with goalie stats, the team factor has to be taken into account. The 2000 and 2001 New Jersey Devils were much more offensive than earlier teams (they led the league in scoring in 2001), which is a possible reason for the decline in Brodeur's save percentage numbers. Shot quality measures indicate that by 2003 and 2004 Devils were again tops in the league in terms of preventing scoring chances, which may explain some of the rebound.
Which perception of Brodeur is more valid, the pre-Olympic view of him as one of the league's top 5 goalies, or the post-Olympics acclamation of him as the world's best? The research done by this blog tends to indicate that the former viewpoint is closer to reality. He has consistently played for a solid defensive team (which Team Canada also certainly was), which means that his stats need to be adjusted before comparing with other goalies, especially those that play on much weaker teams. His durability is impressive, but his so-called consistency is actually mostly a result of New Jersey's persistently strong team play - Brodeur's save percentage has not been consistently high, and he tends to have both more shutouts and poor games than one might otherwise expect.
Brodeur is one of the better goalies in the game, and this year there are arguments to be made that he is the game's best. However, many fans and broadcasters rank Brodeur not only as the best goalie in the league, but place him on a huge pedestal relative to the other goalies, despite the fact that over the last two seasons there is no difference between his performance and that of several other goalies, such as Luongo, Kiprusoff, and Lundqvist. It is this viewpoint that is most in error, and the development of that inflated reputation can be tracked back to Salt Lake City, where Martin Brodeur was lucky to get the chance to play goal for the best team in the world and, quite frankly, did little more than avoid screwing it up.