In the lead up to Martin Brodeur's jersey retirement next week, All About the Jersey will be taking a look at his career and what he meant to the Devils organization. It's no mistake that the Devils will be unveiling both a banner and a statue to honor him. Brodeur is a hockey legend and an icon for the New Jersey Devils and their fans. Of all of the great players that have passed through the Devils' organization and were part of the championship years for the team, no one had the impact on or off the ice quite like Brodeur. He is a cornerstone of this franchise and had a big hand (perhaps the biggest this side of Lou Lamoriello) in turning the Devils into a perennial powerhouse in the late 90's and early 2000's.
Brodeur was valuable to the Devils franchise in a way that only a legendary goaltender can be. Having one elite skater can't keep a team in every game, but having one elite goalie most certainly can. Brodeur was the rock that the Devils could always count on being there. He played basically every night, and you knew he was always going to give the team a chance to win. It's hard to quantify a team having that kind of luxury for as long as Brodeur provided it, but the Devils certainly took advantage, riding him to 685 wins and 123 shutouts over his long career. Some argument can be had over his place in the pantheon of greatest NHL and, despite the records, even goaltenders, but it would be hard to imagine a player providing as much value to a franchise as Brodeur did for the Devils.
The Obvious Reason
Martin Brodeur was a great goaltender. Four Vezina Trophies and three Stanley Cups in five finals appearances are all the credentials he will ever need. Having a great goaltender for the better part of two decades is an extremely valuable thing to have. So often you see teams who seem to have it figured out, only to be sunk by poor goaltending. Or for teams to find a goaltender who is great for one or two seasons, only to have him spiral to mediocrity or worse once signing him longer term. Goaltending is so important because the goalie truly is the only player on the ice who can lose you the game all on his own. The Devils, in my lifetime at least, have so rarely had to worry about such things, and that is largely because of Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur may not have been the best pure stopper of pucks ever to grace the NHL (he never led the league in sv% in a single season), but he always gave the Devils a chance. His consistency allowed them to build their teams from the back end and trust that their defense and goaltending could crush the life out of their opponents. From 1993-94 to 2009-10, he was better than league average in save percentage 14 of 16 times, only missing by a shade in the two seasons he wasn't. Maybe he was never peak Hasek, but having a good-to-great goaltender for 16 consecutive seasons (before his late-career decline) is a luxury few franchises will ever know, and that's before getting into the other things that Marty did from the goaltender position. With Marty backing them up, the Devils skaters could remain focused on the play in front of them for almost two decades.
He Played Every Damn Night
This is perhaps the most impressive thing about Brodeur's career: the workload he took on as the Devils goalie. In the entire history of the NHL, a grand total of 53 goalies ever reached the 70-games played mark in any single season in their career. Brodeur reached that mark 12(!!) times, including 10 consecutive times form 1997-98 to 2007-08. The next closest goalies in total 70-game seasons are Glenn Hall and Miikka Kiprusoff with 7 seasons a piece (via Hockey-Reference Play Index). No one else has more than 4. Like many of Brodeur's other accomplishments, this feat is unlikely to ever be equaled.
That type of durability is uncanny and the fact that Brodeur averaged about 9 nights off a season from 1995 to 2008 is almost impossible to fathom in today's NHL. For reference, Cory Schneider, who is tied for the NHL's heaviest workload this season (via Hockey-Reference again), has already had 8 nights off with 40% of the season to go. Because of Brodeur, the Devils hardly even had to worry about finding a backup goaltender, let alone a starter. And the fact that he was able to remain one of the top goalies in the league while dealing with that amount of work is what makes him a truly special player. The Devils could have had a lawn chair as their backup goalie in most of the seasons from 1998 to 2008 and still made the playoffs with room to spare.
He Changed the Game
Literally. Not in the nebulous way you often hear legends discussed in sports. Not like "wow, teams had to adjust their strategies to his presence on the ice" or "kids wanted to be like him so they picked up his style." The NHL actually changed the rules of their league to minimize the kind of impact Brodeur could have playing the puck. The introduction of the "trapeozoid" after the 2004-05 lockout (one of the three lockouts that Brodeur saw), was a tacit admission that Brodeur was too damn good at playing the puck for other teams to handle.
The trapezoid limited Brodeur from collecting pucks dumped into the corners and quickly starting breakouts. Prior to the lockout, teams would often comment that the Devils almost had a third defender against teams in transition because Brodeur was so good at handling the puck and taking pressure off his defenders. The Devils, of course, had great defenders over the years, but the more soul-crushing versions of the Devils' defense in the early 2000's were certainly aided by the fact that Brodeur could handle the puck like he did. With Brodeur, the Devils were always able to be aggressive in the neutral zone and if they could force a team to dump the puck in, they were effectively winning back possession by virtue of that "third defender" waiting to sling a breakout pass as soon as he got it. Brodeur's skill outside of the net was so impactful that the league basically said "No, that's not fair, we're changing the rules to stop you."
A Lucky Bunch
So what was Brodeur's value to the Devils organization? Above all: peace of mind. The Devils didn't need to worry about who was playing goal or what they could expect out of them for over a decade and a half. You were getting 70 games of Brodeur and he was going to be a great (or, at worst, good) netminder in those 70 games. Defenders could play aggressively with the peace of mind that Brodeur would sling any attempts by teams to dump the puck right back in their faces. The type of longevity and durability he had while performing at the level he did is something I am confident we well never see again. When Lou Lamoriello traded down in the 1990 NHL Draft to take Martin Brodeur, little did anyone know that he had shaped the next two decades of Devils hockey, but looking back at how valuable he was to the franchise, I'd say we're all pretty thankful he did.