Saturday, April 28, 2007

Can Goalies Lead Their Teams to the Playoffs?

One of the biggest goalie debates prior to this season revolved around Roberto Luongo. His promoters pointed to his gaudy save statistics, but his detractors focused on the fact that his team never managed to qualify for the playoffs, and claimed that he could not therefore have been that outstanding. Is this a legitimate argument? Can a goalie singlehandedly drag his team into the postseason?

I looked at this by taking each team's starting goalie, and figuring out how many extra goals the team would have allowed if the starter was replaced by a bad goalie (.895), a league average goalie (.905), and an elite goalie (.915). All save percentage figures are shot-quality neutral (Hockey Numbers), to remove defensive effects.

The results indicate that Luongo has nothing to be ashamed about. By and large, goaltenders had very little impact in terms of deciding whether their teams were in or out.

Goaltending cost two teams a playoff spot: Toronto and Colorado. Both would have qualified easily (100+ pts) if they had even close to league-average goaltending.

One-third of the teams in the NHL would have been expected to miss the playoffs even with the best goalie in the league on their team. Having an elite goalie would have likely pushed only the Panthers and Hurricanes, in addition to the two teams mentioned above, into a playoff position. In fact, if Florida had kept Luongo and he played as well as he has this season, they would be expected to end up with 95 points, which means he would probably have finally made his playoff debut either way. This was because the Florida Panthers finally became decent at generating offence.

Even if they had a horrible goalie in net, most of the playoff teams would have still qualified. The exceptions would have been the New Jersey Devils, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Vancouver Canucks, and Calgary Flames.

Only two teams relied very heavily on their goalie to make the playoffs. Both the New York Islanders and the Vancouver Canucks would likely have missed the playoffs if they received merely league-average goaltending from their starter. Instead, they both received outstanding play in net and thereby qualified for the postseason. The Canucks are not a great team, but they were good enough to take advantage of Luongo's abilities, something that his terrible teams in Florida were never able to do.

So in terms of playoff participation this year, Rick DiPietro and Roberto Luongo deserve the credit, and Andrew Raycroft and Peter Budaj (along with Jose Theodore) deserve the blame. For all the other starting goalies in the entire NHL, the question of playoffs or not was almost entirely out of their hands.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Playoff Report: Goalies A Non-Factor

The excellent Hockey Numbers blog is putting up some very interesting statistical analysis during these playoffs, including expected goals for and against for each team in each game, as well as how each goalie played after adjusting for shot quality. This allows us to more accurately measure how much goaltending is helping the winning teams.

The answer so far? Not very much at all. Based on expected goals, 40 out of 46 games so far have been won by the team that was expected to win. Of the other six, five of them had expected goal numbers that were tied or within 0.1, essentially dead heats that could have gone to either team.

In the entire first round of the NHL playoffs, therefore, there was only one game where a team was clearly expected to win based on scoring chances but did not. That was game 2 of Ottawa against Pittsburgh, where Ottawa was expected to win 3.9 goals to 2.0 and ended up losing 4-3. Fleury was pretty good in the game, but the main reason for the loss was Emery's bad play.

So despite all the broadcaster and fan talk about the importance of goalies, there arguably wasn't a single goalie in the entire first round who managed to steal a game for their team, i.e. won a game against a superior opponent because of their outstanding play, and there was only one goalie who managed to blow a game by playing badly. Otherwise, it was the 18 guys up front that decided everything.

In the second round, things are going exactly the same, as all four teams with the higher expected goals won. Note that San Jose, despite getting outshot 34-17 in game 1, actually had more expected goals than the Red Wings, who tend to have a shoot from everywhere style with a low shot quality. This matches my anecdotal viewpoint as well, as Nabokov's saves certainly looked very routine.

Based on shot-quality neutral save percentage numbers for the round, the losing goalies were actually better than the winning ones. Luongo and Lundqvist were the only two winning goalies to clearly outplay their counterparts once shot quality was factored in, and Lundqvist was actually outplayed in the games where Hedberg was in the other net. So the only series where goaltending was a decisive factor was the Vancouver - Dallas series, where Turco was very good but Luongo was better. In round 2, however, it looks like the Canucks are overmatched by the Ducks, despite Luongo.

So if announcers or analysts talk about a goalie stealing a series, realize that this is an extremely unlikely scenario, since in these playoffs goalies aren't even stealing games. It's a convenient and lazy way to make a prediction, but simply comparing the goaltenders is a poor method because it is the rest of the team that really decides who wins or loses.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Brodeur's Wins "Record"

In 2006-07, Martin Brodeur set a new NHL record for wins in a season with 48. This was hyped as a huge achievement for Brodeur, and yet another sign of his greatness. The problem is that even laying aside how useless wins (a team stat) are in terms of evaluating goalie play, a closer comparison of Brodeur's situation to Parent's shows that this record is not very impressive at all.

The biggest difference is of course the introduction of the shootout. Brodeur won 10 shootouts, the most in the league, meaning that he won just 38 games in regulation time or OT. Not only is that not even close to Parent's total of 47, it wasn't even enough to lead the league, as Luongo posted 42. Brodeur was also actually worse than league average in shootouts (.667 save percentage, 26th best in the league). Luckily for him, his Devils teammates had a 43% scoring proficiency which meant Brodeur was awarded the "W" in 10 out of his 16 shootout contests. He also won 3 games in overtime, which was not in effect in the 1973-74 regular season.

Brodeur's record was 48-23-7, or 18 games above .500, despite his team scoring just 21 more goals than they allowed with him in net. This may indicate clutch play, but more than likely is largely the result of luck and effective team defensive play while holding a lead. Brodeur was 30-14 in one-goal games, 20-8 not including shootouts.

New Jersey also had an extraordinary ability to score late game-tying goals, scoring 7 times to tie the game in the final minute or with the goalie pulled. Brodeur played in 5 of those games, which resulted in 4 additional wins from his teammates essentially bailing him out.

Since the season is longer these days, Brodeur played in 78 games to Parent's 73. The result is that Brodeur lost over twice as many games as Bernie, and his winning percentage was .660 compared to Parent's .736, even with the benefit of extra points available from shootouts and OT wins.

In summary, Bernie Parent's win record is much more impressive than Martin Brodeur's. Parent won 47 games in regulation to Brodeur's 35, despite playing in fewer games. If Parent had shootouts and overtimes, he likely would have won something like 55 games. Brodeur "won" more games because of the shootout rule (where his teammates made up for his average play) and because his teammates were proficient at scoring late game-tying goals with him watching from the bench.

But really, when you get down to it, Brodeur won a pile of games because of shootouts, Parent won a pile of games because he played for a dominant multiple-Cup winning team, and it doesn't really matter who won the most because it's a team stat. This whole charade just illustrates the pointlessness of using wins for evaluating goalies.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Brodeur and the Olympics - Part 5: Gold Medalist Marty

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.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Brodeur and the Olympics - Part 4: Salt Lake

On February 15, 2002, at the first game of the Olympics, Sweden exposed Canada, beating Joseph 5 times on their way to a 5-2 win. Four of the goals were scored by Swedish shooters left all alone in front of the Canadian net, as the Canadian defence looked disoriented on the big ice. Only one of the goals was a softie, a partially screened slapshot from the top of the circle by Mats Sundin (Youtube highlights). The next day, commentators were focusing mostly on how Sweden had outclassed Canada. Joseph's play was described as "pedestrian", but he did not receive the majority of the blame for the result.

As per the pre-tournament plan to rotate goalies, Brodeur got the start in the second game. He was not particularly great against Germany, stopping 18 of 20 shots and allowing a soft goal. Despite Canada winning 3-2, he was outplayed by unknown Marc Seliger at the other end who stopped 34 of 37 Canadian shots. Mostly because of the disaster that had befallen Cujo and his teammates against Sweden, Team Canada's brass decided Brodeur had done well enough to deserve more starts, and decided to go with him for the rest of the tournament.

In the next game, Canada outshot the Czech Republic 36-23, but the result was a 3-3 tie. Brodeur was unspectacular, stopping 20 of 23 shots. He was again outplayed by the opposition's goaltender, as Hasek stopped 33 of 36 shots, including several acrobatic saves. In his post game analysis, SI's Daren Eliot took Hasek over Brodeur as the goalie of the game.

Against Finland, Canada dominated most of the game, holding a huge edge in shots over the first two periods, but struggled to beat Jani Hurme. In the third period, Finland had some more chances, but in all managed just 18 shots on Brodeur, 17 of which were stopped. In his analysis, Eliot rated Hurme as the game's best goaltender.

In the semifinals, Canada beat Belarus 7-1. Brodeur let in a soft goal by defenseman Ruslan Salei, and was otherwise rarely tested, stopping 13 of 14 shots. Despite the scoreline, Eliot yet again picked Brodeur's counterpart as the game's best goalie, choosing Belarus' Andrei Mezin.

In the final, Brodeur had his best game of the tournament, undoubtedly coming up big when it mattered most. He made several key saves, including his famous third-period pad save on Brett Hull. He was beaten 5-hole on an odd-man rush by Tony Amonte, but the second goal was a tough deflection. In all Brodeur stopped 31 of 33 shots, outplayed Mike Richter, and helped Canada to a 5-2 win.

As a whole, Brodeur was not particularly outstanding during the 2002 Olympics. He was solid enough, giving Canada decent goaltending, and was at his best in the final against the Americans. Even so, he was probably outplayed by the opposing goaltender in every game except for the final, but since Canada was the most talented team they were able to win anyway. In a CNN/SI poll, more fans picked goaltending rival Mike Richter than picked Brodeur as the best player in the Olympics. This wasn't just pro-American bias either, as Richter was voted to the tournament all-star team as the best goalie, ahead of Brodeur and others. Nevertheless, the gold medal and the attention surrounding it had a big impact on the career of Martin Brodeur.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Brodeur and the Olympics - Part 3: Who's the Starter?

One of the myths spread by Brodeur supporters is that the only reason that Curtis Joseph started in the Olympics in 2002 was that Pat Quinn was the head coach. In reality, Joseph was the consensus starter, described as the "frontrunner" for the position by CBC in November, and a pre-Olympics poll had 69% supporting Cujo for starting goalie, compared to just 15% for Brodeur. Joseph had been better than Brodeur in the years between Nagano and Salt Lake, and was also playing better in the 1997-98 season. He also had experience as a Team Canada starting goalie from the 1996 World Cup.

However, the way that Roy had been declared the starting goalie throughout in 1998 had not gone over well, and the coaching staff decided to change its tactics. Ed Belfour was named the 3rd goalie, and would not likely see playing time, but Brodeur and Cujo would be auditioning for the job during the Olympics. Cujo would play the first game against Sweden, Brodeur the second game, and they would go from there.

"Gretzky is so involved on this team that it's hard to determine exactly where his authority ends." (Source: CTV)

Pat Quinn was likely heavily influenced by Gretzky in all his decisions, especially concerning the starting goalies. It is unlikely that Quinn would have done something that Gretzky directly disagreed with. Most reports have the two agreeing on the plan to rotate the goalies until one of them shows themselves to be the #1.

Therefore, it was a management decision to share playing time between the goalies. Pat Quinn did not have the sole responsibility in naming Curtis Joseph as the starter for game one, and in any event it was not a choice that most people disagreed with. According to plan, Brodeur would see playing time in the tournament anyway.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brodeur and the Olympics - Part 2: Team Selection

The 2002 Olympic team goaltender selection was a more difficult proposition, as there were a number of deserving candidates, including returnees Roy, Brodeur, and Joseph, as well as Ed Belfour, Sean Burke, and young guns Jose Theodore and Roberto Luongo.

There is, however, little doubt that Patrick Roy was again in position to be named the starter. He had played well in Nagano, and had solidly outplayed Brodeur in the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals, where he was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy and picked up his fourth Stanley Cup ring. He was in form during the 2001-02 season as well, which would end with him being named as a 1st team All-Star. If he had chosen to play, it is likely that he would have been the clear-cut starter, and played in the majority of the games, if not all of them.

However, Roy complicated the selection process by withdrawing from the team. That left Joseph and Brodeur as the front-runners. The problem was that both of them were in the midst of off-years in 2002. So was Ed Belfour, another candidate for the job. The best Canadian goalies at the time were youngsters Theodore, Luongo, and veteran Sean Burke. Here is a summary of the statistics for the contenders in the interval between Nagano and Salt Lake City (1999-2002), as well as how they performed in the 2001 and 2002 seasons:

Roy: .917 save % (.913 in 2001 (playoffs: .934), .925 in 2002)
Theodore: .917 save % (.909 in 2001 (playoffs: DNQ), .931 in 2002)
Burke: .916 save % (.922 in 2001 (playoffs: DNQ), .920 in 2002)
Luongo: .915 save % (.920 in 2001 (playoffs: DNQ), .915 in 2002)
Joseph: .912 save % (.915 in 2001 (playoffs: .927), .906 in 2002)
Belfour: .908 save % (.905 in 2001 (playoffs: .910), .895 in 2002)
Brodeur: .907 save % (.906 in 2001 (playoffs: .897), .906 in 2002)

The selectors, however, preferred experience over youth, and chose not to select Luongo or Theodore. They also passed surprisingly over Sean Burke, despite his excellent numbers and international experience. One thing that likely hurt those three goalies were that they played for weak teams, and did not qualify for the playoffs in 2001. They also did not have the opportunity to pile up lots of attention-getting wins and shutouts.

The goaltending choice therefore came down to experience and reputation, rather than recent form. Even though they were at the bottom of the table in actual performance, Belfour and Brodeur were named to the squad, along with Curtis Joseph. It looked like Belfour would be the third goalie, with the starter to be either Brodeur or Cujo. Most observers believed that Joseph's greater experience, longer history with Team Canada, and better early season form would lead to him being tabbed as Canada's main man.

From a statistical perspective, Brodeur was not deserving to be named to Team Canada 2002. He had not performed particularly well between Nagano and Salt Lake, and he wasn't having an outstanding year in 2002 either. Several younger Canadian goalies were having better years, but Gretzky and company decided to go with the "names". Even after Roy's withdrawal, though, Brodeur still looked like he would be in tough for winning the starting job.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Brodeur and the Olympics - Part 1: Nagano

The introduction of professional players to the Olympic hockey tournament in Nagano created tremendous excitement. As always with Team Canada, there was a lot of debate as to whom would be the starting goaltender. Martin Brodeur looked to be a very strong contender for the position. He was almost 26 years old, and coming off an excellent 1996-97 season where he recorded a .927 save percentage and 10 shutouts, finishing second only to Dominik Hasek for the Vezina Trophy. In addition, he had been the #2 goalie at the 1996 World Cup for Canada, backing up Curtis Joseph, and many felt he was ready to take over for Cujo. There was one other goalie in the mix, however, and that was Patrick Roy, who was coming off a Stanley Cup winning performance in 1996, as well as another great season an a long playoff run in 1997. It was likely to come down to Roy vs. Brodeur for the starting job.

There was not much between Roy and Brodeur in terms of regular season play. Both had excellent seasons in 1997, and were playing well in 1998. Recent playoff success, however, favoured Roy. Brodeur had won the Cup in 1995, but missed the playoffs in 1996, and the Devils lost in the 2nd round in 1997. Patrick Roy won his third Stanley Cup in 1996, and went to the Conference Finals in 1997 with a stellar .932 postseason save percentage. It seems that this experience and big-game performance weighed heavily in Team Canada's decision making. On the plane to Nagano, Brodeur was informed that he would again be the backup. Roy was named the #1 man in net.

During the Olympics, Roy was outstanding. He posted a 1.46 GAA and a .935 save percentage throughout the tournament. Canada simply had the misfortune of running into a red-hot Czech Republic team led by Dominik Hasek at his peak, and was beaten in a semifinal shootout. In the bronze medal game, Roy wasn't great, but neither were his teammates as Canada lost to Finland. Brodeur wanted to play in that game, and many felt he should have started. However, before the game Roy had stopped 119 of 124 shots in the tournament (96%). Canada had given up just 5 goals in 5 games. There did not seem to be much reason for Canada to change; goaltending was one of their strengths.

Brodeur writes in his book that he never forgave Roy for demanding to play in all of the games in Nagano. It seems somewhat absurd to blame Roy for that, since it was the coaching staff that had the final decision as to whether he would play or not. In addition, Roy's play was outstanding. Brodeur would just have to wait, and hope to get a chance to unseat Roy at the next Olympics in four years time.

Brodeur and the Olympics

As I discussed in an earlier post on why everyone loves Martin Brodeur, the 2002 Olympics were a huge boost for Brodeur in terms of his reputation as a goalie. This is evident in terms of the way he has been perceived by fans and award voters since then. How has this impacted Brodeur? Is he deserving of been seen in a better light simply because of the results of a short tournament? And the most difficult question of all: Were his abilities judged more accurately by the hockey community before or after the Olympics?

In one of the comments on this site, a visitor argues that the Olympics showed Brodeur's true level of skill: "Brodeur was HIGHLY under-rated by fans/media until 2002 when he took over in the olympics." Certainly it brought him under the media spotlight more than ever before, and in the attention crosshairs of an entire country. But couldn't this spotlight just as easily had the exact opposite effect, that is it elevated his reputation to undeserving levels, simply because the casual fan associates Brodeur with Olympic gold? This topic requires further scrutiny.

To try to get a better perspective on these issues, I will run a series focusing on the goaltending situation at the 2002 Olympics, including events before, during, and after the Games, to hopefully address these questions and shed more light on Brodeur's Olympic legacy.

Part One: Nagano
Part Two: Team Selection
Part Three: Who's the Starter?
Part Four: Salt Lake
Part Five: Gold Medalist Marty

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The "System" - Part 2

Having established that Jacques Lemaire's system has been successful in Minnesota, let's look at how the system impacts goaltenders.

As an expansion team in 2000, Minnesota needed to fill out their roster. There wasn't much goaltending talent available, so they had to scour the league for usable backups. The two goalies they chose were Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson. Fernandez was 26, a 3rd round draft pick with just 33 games of NHL experience over 5 seasons with Dallas, who dumped him to the Wild for draft picks. Roloson was never drafted, had bounced around as a backup in Calgary and Buffalo, and came to the Wild at the age of 32, coming off of a season spent entirely in the AHL.

So, neither of these goalies was expected to perform particularly well, especially since the Wild roster was stocked with castoffs and hopefuls. Let's compare the first five years of Minnesota Wild goaltending with the 5 years of goaltending Martin Brodeur gave Jacques Lemaire during his time in New Jersey:

Minnesota, 2000 - 2006:
2.42 GAA, .918 save %, 28 shutouts, 29.4 shots/game

Brodeur, 1994 - 1998:
2.15 GAA, .917 save %, 32 shutouts, 25.9 shots / game

The stats are very similar. The only difference is that the Wild allowed more shots per game, which resulted in slightly more goals against. What was the only thing that an expansion team with two career backups in net had in common with the Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils and their highly touted star goalie? A similar style of defensive play, and that is what drives the numbers.

This was, of course, early in Martin Brodeur's career. His Vezina-winning seasons came later on. Therefore, let's look at a comparison of Minnesota's goalies vs. the contemporary Martin Brodeur:

Minnesota, 2000 - 06:
2.42 GAA, .918 save %, 28 shutouts, 29.4 shots/game

Brodeur, 2000 - 06:
2.22 GAA, .914 save %, 38 shutouts, 25.7 shots/game

Again the numbers are very similar, Minnesota's goalies face more shots, but are slightly more efficient. Shot quality studies have indicated that although both teams are excellent defensively, New Jersey has been consistently better than Minnesota. Those numbers, therefore, indicate that Minnesota got even better work between the pipes than New Jersey.

This year? Again, almost exactly the same production. Minnesota's goalies have a combined .922 save percentage, exactly equal to Brodeur. Goals against averages are 2.18 for Brodeur, 2.19 for Minnesota. Hockey Numbers has the shot quality neutral save percentages as .912 for Minnesota, .905 for Brodeur. This is mostly driven by Finnish rookie Nicklas Backstrom, who has been off the charts with a .929 save percentage. Even in this season of accolades for Brodeur, Minnesota's goaltending has been just as good.

Jacques Lemaire's system works, and it makes life very easy for his goaltenders. Just as Brodeur did early in his career in New Jersey, Minnesota's goalies have put up excellent numbers. Despite playing behind an expansion team that has missed the playoffs four times in six seasons, they have been every bit as good as Brodeur. Maybe the only reason that none of Minnesota's goalies are considered the best in the game is because Lemaire has developed a habit of platooning them. Regardless, this is further evidence that team defensive play has a very large impact on goaltender success.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The "System"

New Jersey is known its strong commitment to defensive play, often referred to as "the system". The debate then becomes whether Brodeur is responsible for the system, or merely a product of it.

New Jersey became an elite defensive team in 1993-94, Brodeur's first year in the league, and has been excellent ever since. It seems like Brodeur must have had a lot to do with it, and to some degree he has. However, that was also the same year that Jacques Lemaire was hired as coach. The team let in 79 fewer goals that season, went over 100 points for the first time in franchise history, and made it to the Conference Finals. The next season, the team allowed fewer shots, fewer goals, and won the Stanley Cup. Since then they have had 9 100 point seasons, and have added 2 more Cups, all the while playing great defensive hockey. So who is most responsible for the New Jersey system, Brodeur or Lemaire?

One of the key arguments for those who favour Brodeur is this: if Lemaire's system is so great, why hasn't he had more success with the Minnesota Wild? He has been the coach there for 7 years, and this year will be only his second playoff appearance. If the "system" was so easy to put into place, wouldn't he have some Cups by now?

The Wild were an expansion team in 2000-01, and like most expansion teams they were not very good. For the first two years of their existence, the Wild had seasons of just 68 and 73 points. However, Lemaire's defensive coaching ability showed through the mediocrity - even if their inaugural season, with a roster stocked with castoffs from other teams, the Wild finished a respectable 12th in the league in goals against.

In 2003, Minnesota broke out. Led by emerging star Marian Gaborik, the Wild went 42-29-10-1 for 95 points, good for 3rd in the Northwest Division. The team was excellent defensively, finishing 4th in the league in goals against. In the playoffs, they went to the Conference Finals before losing to Anaheim.

However, Minnesota has not duplicated that success, missing the playoffs the next two seasons despite again finishing 4th in the league in goals against in both years. In both years they actually finished 8th in the conference in goal difference. The problem was their tough division, and bad luck in close games. In 2003-04, Minnesota played 20 ties, by far the most in the league, and it was primarily their failure to capture overtime bonus points that cost them a playoff spot. In 2005-06, the team went 38-36-8, despite scoring 16 more goals than they conceded, because of a poor record in one goal games. In both years the team was one of the best defensive teams in the league, but nevertheless narrowly missed the postseason.

This year, Minnesota will make the playoffs, despite again playing in a very tough division. They are currently tied with San Jose as the best defensive team in the league.

Comparing the Wild with the Devils, it is clear that the teams follow a very similar profile. Since 2003, New Jersey has scored just 31 more goals than Minnesota, and has conceded just 16 fewer. The difference in goals against is just .05 per game over that stretch.

Minnesota defensive rank, last 4 seasons: 4th, 4th, 4th, 1st
Minnesota goals against average, last 4 seasons: 2.33
New Jersey goals against average, last 4 seasons: 2.28

The evidence is clear: Lemaire's system has been implemented in Minnesota, and has made Minnesota into one of the top defensive teams in the league. After a couple of years spent developing talent, the team has been roughly the equal of the New Jersey Devils in terms of defensive play. The difference between the teams has been strength of division, strength of conference, offensive talent, and luck in close games.

So Lemaire's record in Minnesota is in no way an argument against his contribution to New Jersey's defensive success. In fact, it reinforces that position. He took an expansion team and made them one of the top defensive teams in the league within three years, and has maintained an excellent defensive record ever since, despite never having a superstar goalie or any star defensive players. This is strong evidence that it was Lemaire that established the Devils system. The success was certainly aided by New Jersey's excellent defensive players, including Brodeur, but claims that "Brodeur is the system" are once again not backed up by the facts.