Martin Brodeur recently added a third Vezina to his trophy haul, adding another strong argument to those who defend his greatness. Others would argue that none of those Vezinas were deserving, so they should not be given heavy weighting in a career perspective.
I sympathize with the latter view, but the problem is that picking and choosing Vezina trophy winners can easily dissolve into blatant bias. For example, it is difficult to brush aside Brodeur's three Vezinas and then on the other hand, hold up Patrick Roy's three awards as proof of his greatness. In addition, goaltenders often get delayed recognition - trophies usually go to well-accomplished goaltenders, and younger goalies often lose out. This means that just because a goalie won Vezinas late in his career (like, for example, Brodeur), does not necessarily mean that he is undeserving of those honours, because he may have actually deserved some earlier awards. Many have claimed that Brodeur was ignored and overlooked early in his career, mostly because of the Devils' defensive system. When he won his first Vezina in 2003 it was widely seen as long overdue. To properly evaluate Brodeur, therefore, we need to see whether he was perhaps underappreciated to some degree in his younger days, which may balance out some of the possible overexposure he has received in recent years.
I have investigated the Vezina voting from 1994-2002, and conclude that claims that Brodeur was overlooked and discriminated against are revisionist nonsense. Brodeur got everything he deserved and much more than that as a Vezina candidate. He nearly always was ranked ahead of other goalies with almost identical statistics, even some of the best goalies in the league. He was just never deserving enough to win.
After winning the 1994 Calder Trophy in his rookie year, Brodeur was already recognizable enough to collect Vezina votes in 1994-95 with two seconds and a third place vote. Look at how eerily similar his stats were to Boston goalie Blaine Lacher, who received no votes:
Brodeur: 2.42, .902, 19-11-6, 3 SO, 24.7 shots/game
Lacher: 2.41, .902, 19-11-2, 4 SO, 24.5 shots/game
In 1995-96, Brodeur and the Devils failed to qualify for the playoffs. To be fair, the main reason for this was their lack of scoring, but not making the playoffs is often held against goalies even if they play on weak teams, and Brodeur played on the defending Stanley Cup champions. It was definitely held against Hasek, who did not win the Vezina that year despite leading the league with a .920 save percentage. This was because the Dominator was only credited for 22 wins, facing 35 shots per game on a weak Sabres team. As a result, Hasek finished 8th in Vezina voting. Brodeur was decent (.911 save percentage), but the only thing he led the league in was games played. Nevertheless, Brodeur received 4 firsts, 3 seconds, and 2 third place votes to finish fourth in the Vezina race. In the season-end All-Star Team voting, Brodeur had the second most first-place votes after Jim Carey, and narrowly missed out on a Second Team berth. Carey was a poor choice as a winner that year, and it is justifiable to claim that Brodeur should have beat him, but the best goalie in 1995-96 was Dominik Hasek, so it was not really an injustice to rank Brodeur third.
In 1996-97, Brodeur had a great season, possibly his best ever (.927, 37 wins). Unfortunately, even that wasn't enough to match Dominik Hasek. The Dominator had the same number of wins as Brodeur in the same number of games, and had a better save percentage (.930) while facing almost 7 extra shots per game. The mediocre Sabres won their division, and Hasek's brilliance was shown by him receiving 50 out of 54 first-place Hart Trophy votes. Brodeur finished a deserving second in the voting.
In 1997-98, Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour had virtually identical seasons. The only difference was that Brodeur played in a few more games.
Brodeur: 1.89, .917, 43-17-8, 10 SO, 22.8 shots/gm
Belfour: 1.88, .916, 37-12-10, 9 SO, 22.4 shots/gm
The Vezina voters apparently saw a huge difference. Brodeur finished second to Hasek again in Vezina voting with 57 points including 2 first place votes. Belfour finished a distant fourth with only 10 points, with just one second place vote and seven thirds. This was repeated in the All-Star voting, where 47 out of 50 voters put Brodeur second on their ballots, while nearly a third of them left Belfour off their ballots entirely.
Martin Brodeur was obviously developing a great reputation, and that was reinforced the next year based on his voting results against the legendary Patrick Roy. Brodeur and Roy had identical GAAs, and although Brodeur had more wins, Roy had more shutouts and a much better save percentage. Roy received only one third place vote for the Vezina, while Brodeur was named on 11 ballots, including one first place vote.
Brodeur: 2.29, .906, 39-21-10, 4 SO, 24.5 shots/gm
Pat Roy: 2.29, .917, 32-19-8, 5 SO, 27.5 shots/gm
In 1999-00, Brodeur again beat Roy in the voting, despite posting similar numbers (2.24 GAA and .910 save % compared to Roy's 2.28 and .914) on a team that was better both offensively and defensively.
The best New Jersey Devils team of the era was probably the 2000-01 version. Playing for that juggernaut, Brodeur again piled up the wins, and the Vezina voters, as usual, took notice. Three other goalies, including Belfour again, had very similar stats.
Brodeur: 2.32, .906, 42-17-11, 9 SO, 26.9 shots/gm
Belfour: 2.34, .905, 35-20-7, 8 SO, 26.9 shots/gm
Dafoe: 2.39, .906, 22-14-7, 2 SO, 27.8 shots/gm
Irbe: 2.45, .908, 37-29-9, 6 SO, 29.0 shots/gm
Together, Belfour, Dafoe and Irbe combined for a mere two Vezina votes. Martin Brodeur got 7 first place votes and finished third in the vote totals, and in the All-Star voting he picked up 18 first-place votes and narrowly missed out on a Second Team nomination.
In the Olympic year of 2001-02, Brodeur did not have a very good year, and Jose Theodore took home the Vezina. Once again there were several close comparables to Brodeur, including Curtis Joseph and Dafoe, and Brodeur received more votes than any of them.
Perhaps the favouritism displayed towards Brodeur is best expressed by a comparison with Ed Belfour. Like New Jersey, Dallas played a strong defensive system, so the two goalies played in very similar environments. Between 1997-98 and 2000-01, both goalies faced 24 shots per game, and both got around 3 goals per game in support from the teams in front of them. As might be expected given these similarities, their performance statistics were very similar as well:
Goalie stats (1997 to 2001):
Brodeur: 284 GP, 167-75-37, 2.19, .910, .665 win %, 29 SO
Belfour: 247 GP, 139-68-33, 2.08, .914, .648 win %, 26 SO
If either of them has a slight performance edge it's probably Belfour, but the Vezina voters repeatedly sided with Brodeur, who received 124 voting points and 10 first place votes over those four seasons. Belfour had just 40 points and was ranked first just twice. In media voting for the seasonal All-Star Team, Brodeur again received way more recognition than Belfour, totalling 371 voting points compared to 123 for Eddie the Eagle. Over the four seasons, only one sportswriter ever ranked Belfour as the best in the league, while Brodeur was ranked first on 26 different ballots.
There may have been some observers who dismissed Martin Brodeur as a team creation in the mid- to late-1990s. If so, they were clearly in the minority. Brodeur got more votes than he deserved almost every year. A number of times there were other goalies with almost identical stats, and virtually every time they ended up ranking well behind Brodeur, even the best of his peers such as Roy, Belfour and Joseph.
Despite all that, Brodeur didn't win a Vezina and only twice finished as the runner-up in his first nine years in the league. The end-of-season awards evidence therefore shows that Martin Brodeur was far from dominant in the prime of his career, which makes it that much more difficult to make a compelling argument that he was the best goaltender of his generation, much less one of the greatest of all-time.