Monday, January 14, 2008

Martin Brodeur and the Upside Down Career Curve

When NHL play resumed after the 2005 lockout, Martin Brodeur re-entered the fray as the two-time defending Vezina Trophy winner. However, he longer had Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer playing in front of him, and the new rules were supposed to open up the game and circumvent the defensive tactics executed to perfection by his Devils teammates. Many saw this to be a test of how good he actually was.

For the first three months, Brodeur failed the test. On New Year's Eve, 2005, Brodeur was lit up for 6 goals on 22 shots by the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs. At that point in the season, his stat line was a mediocre 14-14-3, 2.94, .896. Based on that small sample, it looked like those who were claiming he was a team creation had been right all along.

But whether it was a New Year's resolution, something his goalie coach spotted in his game, or perhaps some other reason, the Martin Brodeur that went between the pipes in 2006 was very different than the 2005 version.

On January 3, Brodeur made 16 saves to shut out Florida, beginning a 9 game personal win streak, 3 of them by shutout, where he posted a .934 save percentage. This was followed by a strong finish to the year, a Vezina Trophy winning season in 2006-07 where Brodeur had his highest finish in save percentage since 1996-97, and after a rocky start to the current campaign he seems to have regained his form over the last two months to appear back up on the leaderboards.

So what happened? Has Brodeur's post-lockout performance been the proof that his backers have been waiting for? Can they claim that he was unjustifiably denigrated for years because of his poor defence, based on the evidence from the last 2 1/2 seasons? This post is certainly not going to stop them from claiming that, of course, but the reality is that the Martin Brodeur of 2006-08 is not the same goalie as he was before the lockout. Since New Year's Day 2006, Brodeur's performance has improved by every goaltending measure that I am aware of.

The result is that Brodeur's career path has been the exact opposite of most goalies. Here it is, broken down into three sections:

Up to 1997-98: .915 season save %, .931 playoffs save %
1998-99 to Dec. 31/05: .909 season save %, .917 playoffs save %
Jan. 1/06 to today: .921 season save %, .919 playoffs save %

Ordinarily, goalies would be peaking somewhere during the age 26-31 range, but those were actually some of the worst seasons of Brodeur's career so far, even during some of the most successful seasons for the New Jersey Devils and when overall league scoring was very low. Brodeur has spent roughly half his career as one of the top 5-10 goalies in the league, and has spent the other half around league average, i.e. somewhere in the top 15-20, despite playing for the same consistently strong team. This is a peculiar dichotomy, and belies the common characterization of Brodeur as a "consistent goalie".

Are there any underlying factors at work here? Could it be something related to power play differential, shot quality difference, or something else related to the new NHL rules? Let's break it down further to look at even-strength and penalty kill save percentages. Overall save percentages are often skewed by how many penalties a team takes, and Brodeur's teams have nearly always been the best in the league at avoiding calls. Detailed special team save percentage data from is only available from the 2000-01 season, but that at least allows us to compare the "dead-puck" Devils to today's version and see what has changed.

2000-01: Brodeur .919, League .916 (Leader .932)
2001-02: Brodeur .917, League .917 (Leader .934)
2002-03: Brodeur .921, League .920 (Leader .940)
2003-04: Brodeur .924, League .924 (Leader .941)

Penalty Kill:
2000-01: Brodeur .839, League .863 (Leader .902)
2001-02: Brodeur .849, League .863 (Leader .922)
2002-03: Brodeur .866, League .868 (Leader .913)
2003-04: Brodeur .878, League .868 (Leader .916)

What do we see here? We see basically a league average goalie. This despite New Jersey allowing the easiest shot quality against in the league, as calculated by Alan Ryder at Hockey Analytics. Brodeur won two Vezinas in this period, but they were certainly undeserving choices.

Moving on to the post-lockout years:

2005-06: Brodeur .922, League .916 (Leader .941)
2006-07: Brodeur .927, League .916 (Leader .933)
2007-08: Brodeur .934, League .925 (Leader .948)

Penalty Kill:
2005-06: Brodeur .869, League .863 (Leader .899)
2006-07: Brodeur .904, League .863 (Leader .921)
2007-08: Brodeur .905, League .885 (Leader .917)

Here we see significant improvement, as Brodeur outperformed the league average significantly in both categories in 2006-07, as well as so far in 2007-08. Although he has never been the league leader in any of these categories, he is certainly much closer now than he was in the early '00s. The most drastic improvement is on the penalty kill.

Here is a graph that shows the above numbers visually.

Brodeur still faces a relatively low shot total against, even post-lockout. This year he is facing 26.4 shots per 60 minutes of play, which is just two more shots per game than he did in 2003-04 when the Devils were at their trapping best. Save percentage is independent of shots faced, so that does not seem to be a factor in his improvement.

Additionally, shot quality results from Hockey Analytics and Hockey Numbers indicate that New Jersey was among the league's best in terms of shot quality against in both 2005-06 and 2006-07. It is only this season that they have fallen off. They weren't as smothering as they were at their peak under Pat Burns in 2002-04, but the system was still functioning very effectively. Many have pointed out the inexperienced defence, but recent work by hockey bloggers indicates that it is the forward group that has a larger impact on the number and quality of shots for or against, and New Jersey has some very strong two-way forwards, led by Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta.

By bucking the normal career trend by improving as he ages, as well as having multiple seasons of average play camouflaged behind an excellent defence, Brodeur is leading many to conclude that we were missing something all along, and that he was the main reason for all the wins and shutouts, not the defence in front of him. That conclusion is wrong.

Even while facing similar numbers and quality of shots as before, Brodeur is simply stopping more of them. He is better now than he was with Stevens and Niedermayer. Nevertheless, his performance over the last two seasons does not change the fact that for 6 1/2 seasons he was very average behind one of the best defensive teams of all-time. It certainly does help his career standing, and if he continues his late career resurgence for several more years he could clearly separate himself from the crowded pack of solid long-time starters from the '90's and '00's (Belfour, Joseph, etc.). Brodeur is doing an excellent late career sales job, but he is going to have to sustain, if not even increase, his current pace for a number of seasons before he can be legitimately considered even one of the top 10 goalies of all-time.


Anonymous said...

Are you serious? I respect your opinion and all that jazz, but you are putting far too much weight into statistics. The Devils system doesn't protect Brodeur as much as Brodeur protects the Devils system. Yes, he faces fewer shots than most, but if you watch the games on a consistent basis, you'll see that a lot of those missing shots are the simple shots that goalies will always save and usually freeze (the "get over the line and take a wrister into the crest" shot). He still faces and stops a lot of good scoring chances, especially this season, with a pretty terrible defense in front of him. About ten goals against the Devils this season have been the direct result of Johnny Oduya falling down, giving the puck away, or just being tactless in his own zone.

On top of that, there is the issue of the disgracefully gigantic pads that a ton of "top" goalies wear nowadays. If you look at a goalie like Lundqvist and watch him play, you'll be surprised as how frequently the puck hits him and he's looking the other way. I don't chalk that up to skill the same way statisticians will see it. I'm not big on changing the game - I hate the concept of the shootout, the handcuffing of goalies in the corners, the new zone-sizes, etc - but one thing that needs to be addressed is the size of pads. I know that measures have already been applied, but goalies still abuse the system.

Is time/age catching up with Brodeur? Yes, I concede that he's not quite as sharp as he used to be. He hasn't been the best goalie this season, but in terms of performances, he has still been one of the best.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

I'm not saying he is not as sharp as he used to be. I'm saying he is significantly MORE sharp than he used to be. Martin Brodeur is better now than he was between 1998 and 2005. If you look at the graph, that seems to be a pretty reasonable conclusion. I've taken a lot of shots at Martin Brodeur, but he has been undeniably very good this season behind the worst team defence he has ever had. That doesn't make him an all-time great, and doesn't change the fact that he was average for many years, but you have to give credit where credit is due.

As far as the extra shots not faced being easy, that may be true this season, but it is not true for previous years. There are ways of measuring shot quality, and one of the easiest is just taking the average shot distance against. Brodeur always had the longest average shot distances against, meaning that he faced relatively more easy "get over the line and take a wrister" shots than most. This year is a different story, however, which is why his performance is more impressive.

Anonymous said...

If Brodeur was truly elite - as proven by statistics - maybe he'd have 5 or 6 Cups instead of just 3. Instead, he's been merely average too often.

Unknown said...

Well, speaking from playing goal for a long time and playing at the major junior level, being a goalie is the toughest position in all sports, besides being a quaterback, but even that's comparable. To say that Marty is questionable to be considered in the top 5 of all times is crazy. His resume speaks for itself. On top of that, he's been playing nearly 80 games a season for almost his entire career. Even Patrick Roy had mediocore and below average seasons throughout his career. Marty has always produced and at 35, is still producing at a Vezina trophy worthy level.

Anonymous said...

I have a question with your numbers - how do you arrive at your league average and leader numbers for save %? A backup golie on a good team playing a few games against mostly subpar teams can throw the entire average out of whack. What are your sources for all your statistics?

Anonymous said...

Hey Ryan, just check out all the research & articles the author has put on here.

No doubt about it, Brodeur is very overrated. Some years he has been pretty good (although not the "best"), & others even below-avg. But his team is great so he usually looks pretty good.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I was actually thinking about this the other day.

Brodeur's improvement in post-lockout play presents the illusion of consistency given the fact that his team is no longer able to prevent high quality scoring chances as effectively as before. His underlying numbers (namely,SQN%)in 2007-08 are his best to date, but this escapes notice due to the average hockey fan's preoccupation with more superficial figures (Wins, GAA, aggregated save percentage, etc). This is the first year in a long time when one can accurately say that Brodeur isn't overrated.

Anonymous said...

haha an average player does not win 3 stanley cups and most of all not a goalie.. the people posting on here must be fans of the maple leafs or winnipeg jets..both your teams are done.. no goalie has won every cup hes gone to and the fact he has 3 immediatly puts him in the hall of fame...he wins and looks great doing it his stats are amazing and even up to this year hes in top 5 or higher in every major goalie catagory and this year is without decent players in front of him...peopl get a life!

Anonymous said...

did you take into account all the coaching changes? if i remember correctly, at the beginning of the season when broduer was "failing the test" they were under a diff. coach. then at the end of the season lou stepped back in and they won. am i thinking of the wrong season? yes brodeur has gotten sharper because shots are coming from new spots. pre-lockout kids in front of the net got messed up. now they can stand there pretty much without remorse. and with scott stevens not around to lay earth shattering checks in the corners, the devils had to take a new approach to their game. devils defense ISNT what it used to be, so brodeur HAS to step up and become better then before.