One of the pro-Brodeur arguments is that if it is so easy to rack up huge numbers on a great defensive team, why don't lots of goalies do it? Brodeur's career wins and shutouts will soon surpass every other goalie who has ever played in the NHL. So in a sense Brodeur is a rare breed. Having said that, however, what exactly is rare about him? Does he possess rare goaltending skill? Has he played for a uniquely dominant team? Does he possess any unique characteristics, such as perhaps longevity, loyalty, etc.?
Certainly a goalie's situation is a major factor. Wins and losses are determined by two components - goals for and goals against. Goalies have little impact on goals for, and goals against are largely determined by the number and quality of scoring chances the goalie has to face. Even the best goalies can't singlehandedly save a bad team - Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, Jacques Plante, and Glenn Hall have all missed the playoffs in their careers. Without playing on a good team, a goalie will have a much more difficult time making it among the leaders in GAA or piling up a lot of wins and shutouts.
With only a handful of great defensive teams in the league in any given season, the odds are long that any given goalie will end up drawing one of these choice assignments. And even if they do get there, they have to be good enough and durable enough to play lots of games to be able to rack up the huge counting numbers. They also have to stay with that team, which is both a combination of the player being loyal to the franchise as well as the franchise remaining loyal to the player.
So which teams had this type of situation? The two key indicators of strong defensive teams are low goals against and shots against totals. Here are the top 10 teams in goals against during the Dead Puck Era that Brodeur spent most of his career in (say, 1995-96 to 2003-04 to keep league effects roughly constant), with their average shots per game totals in brackets:
1. New Jersey (24.7)
2. Dallas (25.4)
3. Philadelphia (25.0)
4. Detroit (26.3)
5. Colorado (28.0)
6. Buffalo (29.5)
7. St. Louis (24.7)
8. Ottawa (26.0)
9. Washington (27.8)
10. Montreal (29.7)
The effect of really good goaltending becomes obvious in the cases of Colorado and Buffalo. The most similar teams to New Jersey are Dallas, Philadelphia, Detroit, St. Louis and Ottawa. Detroit had the most wins with 431, while New Jersey had 400, Dallas 388, Philadelphia 384, St. Louis 367 and Ottawa 350. All of those teams had seasons when their goaltending was league average or worse in terms of save percentage, so clearly a decent goaltender who started most of the games for any of those franchises would end up "winning" a lot of games.
Here are the total goalie stats for all the teams:
DAL: .596 win %, 2.27 GAA, .910 save %
PHI: .600 win %, 2.27 GAA, .908 save %
DET: .650 win %, 2.32 GAA, .911 save %
STL: .566 win %, 2.44 GAA, .900 save %
OTT: .576 win %, 2.37 GAA, .906 save %*
(*-I chose not to include 1995-96 numbers for Ottawa. The Sens were still an awful expansion franchise and that one season really skews their numbers for the period. Now it is true that if Brodeur broke in with Ottawa he would have had to suffer through the painful early years, but since we are dealing here with "right time, right place" what-ifs let's just say the Ottawa goalie would start in 1996-97).
What were Brodeur's numbers? .626, 2.13, .913. So, expressed in rate stats, he was just slightly better than the goaltending received by Dallas, Philadelphia and Detroit in those years. However, this is comparing Brodeur to all the goalies on the other teams. If another team was going to copy New Jersey's goalie-handling style, they would rely heavily on their starting goalie. So comparing him to the starters only is a fairer comparison.
If you take all the starting goalies (definition: the goalie that played the most minutes in each season) for each of the strong defensive teams, and pro-rate their numbers to Brodeur's level of minutes, here is what you get:
Dallas: 344 W, 60 SO, 2.17, .912
Detroit: 379 W, 54 SO, 2.33, .911
St. Louis: 324 W, 43 SO, 2.42, .903
Ottawa: 311 W, 62 SO, 2.34, .907
Philadelphia: 355 W, 64 SO, 2.13, .913
Brodeur: 355 W, 69 SO, 2.13, .913
Compare those last two lines: Philadelphia and New Jersey had basically identical starting goaltending, the Devils just got more of it. If Philadelphia had played their starter for 70-75 games per season for that entire period and got a similar level of production, they would have matched what New Jersey got out of Brodeur. Now it is probably unrealistic to expect exactly the same performance level with an additional 15-20 starts per season, but I'm not convinced that goalie performance tends to drop off significantly with extra starts (a previous post dealt with this issue). Furthermore, Philadelphia's backups generally did worse than New Jersey's did, yet only one Flyer goalie cracked the 60 game mark in this span. The breakdown:
New Jersey: 649 games for starters at .913, 129 games with backups at .904
Philadelphia: 469 games for starters at .913, 316 games with backups at .901
It looks like New Jersey and Philadelphia simply had differing philosophies on how to handle goaltenders. I think there is little doubt that New Jersey's method is better for both the team as a whole as well as the starting goalie's counting numbers.
St. Louis (Fuhr/Turek/Osgood) and Ottawa (Rhodes/Tugnutt/Lalime) had bad goaltending more often than not, so a good goalie playing on those teams would have likely have surpassed the above numbers. Roman Turek's 1999-00 season (1.95 GAA, 42 wins, 7 SO) and Patrick Lalime's 2002-03 campaign (2.16 GAA, 39 wins, 8 SO) show the kind of numbers a strong goalie could have been expected to put up every season playing behind Pronger/MacInnis or Redden/Chara.
St. Louis in particular was really a wasted opportunity for a star goalie - the Blues allowed the fewest shots of anybody except for New Jersey during the period, but fouled it up by trotting out a line of subpar netminders. If Mike Keenan didn't run Curtis Joseph out of St. Louis in 1995, Joseph could have stayed and won 350+ games over those 9 seasons for the Blues. And in that scenario, as long as he had at least one or two good playoff runs in there, Cujo might be mentioned today in the same breath as Hasek, Roy, and Brodeur in all the best goalie debates. Of course, Joseph would probably still have bolted for a big payday with his home-town Maple Leafs, which just underscores again the rarity of Brodeur being a one-team guy for his entire career.
So was Brodeur really such a special goaltender? The overall quality of his performance was not particularly unique, as the rate stats of the starters for other good defensive teams were very similar to Brodeur, although on the whole Brodeur was certainly a good goaltender with a net positive effect on his team. However, Brodeur really sets himself apart in terms of the quantity of his performances.
Brodeur's career win totals are largely a function of his high number of games played. If Brodeur played a typical starter's workload of 55-60 games per season, he would have likely ended up with 20-25% fewer career wins. His workload was partly a reward for his play, but Brodeur still far surpassed other goalies around the league, even goalies on similar calibre defensive teams who were putting up very similar numbers. Philadelphia, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis or Ottawa would have produced a goalie with Brodeur-type numbers if they had acquired a decent goalie and given him a heavy workload for a decade or so.
The results show that a strong defence does not necessarily ensure team success or great goaltending (e.g. Ottawa and St. Louis). That Brodeur provided stable enough goaltending to allow a great team to win over a long period of time is certainly a plus, and provides significant value over replacement, even if Brodeur's performance sometimes was barely even above average. Brodeur has never scuttled his team's season like other goalies have, and his performances in the playoffs have been generally good. There have been a few dismal playoff performances in there (including even arguably costing his team the 2001 Stanley Cup), but that is typical of nearly all goalies with a similar length of tenure. Playoff series are short and a lot of luck and randomness is involved. I have probably underrated Brodeur in the past by failing to fully value this type of contribution. Having said that, Brodeur benefits from playing a lot of games, something I tend to believe is more a measure of opportunity than talent, which allows him extra chances to rack up wins and shutouts.
When you allow less than 25 shots per game, you don't need a great goalie to win. But you can still lose with poor goaltending. Brodeur helped prevent the Devils from suffering the repeated playoff failures of the Blues or Senators (Brodeur vs. Lalime was the #1 reason Ottawa did not win the Cup in 2003). On the other hand, he would have never approached his success if he played in somewhere like Long Island or Florida. It is likely that any goalie would have done well in New Jersey between 1994 and 2008 (just look at the backup goalies), but it is unlikely that most other goalies would have been able to stay there that long without getting traded or replaced. The difference between Martin Brodeur and a guy like Patrick Lalime is that Brodeur is a much better goalie, because Lalime had every opportunity to succeed but didn't. But I think the difference between Brodeur and someone like Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour still comes down more to team factors than individual ones. If you want to rank Brodeur ahead of those guys because he actually did accomplish all those things, while they only hypothetically could have, I don't have a problem with that. But Brodeur is in many ways more of a Joseph with better teammates or a Belfour with more games played than someone who is up there with Roy and Hasek and the greatest who have ever donned the pads.
So in summary, the main reasons for Brodeur's success can be outlined as follows:
1. He is a good goalie, mostly above-average throughout his career and at times great
2. He was drafted by the premier defensive team in the league
3. He played the most games of any goalie in the league
4. He remained a one-team guy, allowing him to play nearly his entire career behind a great defence
5. He played in a low-scoring era, which makes his numbers look better in an all-time context