Tomorrow, the franchise will honor Martin Brodeur by retiring his number. It's a perfect time as any to celebrate the illustrious career he's had with the New Jersey Devils. It's what we've been doing here for the past few days. Brodeur definitely isn't the first Devil to have his own number retired. He is the first to get his own statue. I was excited when I heard the news. It made a lot of sense to me. I basically became a Devils fan when Brodeur broke in with the Devils in the 1993-94 season. Throughout most of my life, I wasn't just watching a great goaltender. I was watching one of the best ever. Of course he should get a statue.
So with that in mind, let's try to answer one of common question in sports: Where does (Player X) rate among the greats? Where does he stack up?
Let's keep it easy to start. Is Martin Brodeur the greatest goaltender in New Jersey Devils history?
This is a simple one. Yes. This is a franchise that has seen a total of 46 goaltenders per Hockey Reference. Before Martin Brodeur, the best goaltender would be a toss-up between Glenn "Chico" Resch (he was better in Long Island), Sean Burke, and Chris Terreri. No goalie really became the goalie for the Devils for a particularly long stretch of time until Brodeur took the position over in 1994 and didn't look back for decades. It didn't take long for Brodeur to start taking franchise records (e.g. he broke the old franchise record of six shutouts set by Terreri in the 1996-97 season) and carving his place in New Jersey history (e.g. Calder Trophy in 1994, Stanley Cup in 1995, etc.). The list of accomplishments speaks for itself. His value to the franchise is clear. I'd like to think one day Cory Schneider is a part of this discussion. He's definitely on the right path with an exceptional save percentage; the rest of the organization just has to follow. For now, it's a clear answer: Brodeur is the greatest Devils goalie of all time.
So let's go after the more pertinent question. Is Brodeur the greatest NHL goaltender of all time?
This is a simple one as well. No. While Brodeur has a very long line of accomplishments and accolades, it's clear he was not always even the best goalie when active.
First, there's Patrick Roy. He helped bring back the butterfly style to the position and inspired generations of kids, especially in Quebec, to take it up. He played at a high level (relative to when he played) throughout his career from Montreal to Colorado. His playoff success really speaks for itself.
Second, there's Dominik Hasek. Whereas Roy has Conn Smythes, Hasek has Harts (and Pearsons). He basically dragged some unimpressive Buffalo teams to being something much more than they were by posting up some ridiculous numbers at his time. He posted a 93% overall save percentage in 1993-94. The NHL didn't start recording even strength save percentage until the 1997-98 season. Among goalies with at least 300 games played between 1997-98 to this season, Hasek is still the leader in even strength save percentage with a 93.3%. All this while playing like he seemingly had a Slinky for a spine. The crazy thing is that he didn't make his NHL debut until he was 26 and he didn't become a starter until he was 29. If he was able to come over from the Czech Republic sooner and/or get an opportunity to be featured sooner, then his peak could have been even longer and more impressive.
As it stands, while Roy inspired thousands to try and play like he's done, Hasek remains as one of the more unique players in recent memory. Personally, I'd rank Hasek ahead of Roy but it's moot. It wasn't until both faded away at about 2003 where Brodeur had to get out from under their shadows. While Brodeur certainly had an incredible career, I cannot say he was better when either was around. It was akin to being Denis Savard in a decade run by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Ain't no shame in being Savard, it's just is what it is.
OK. So are there any other goalies who have been more impressive than Brodeur in their careers? I think there is one definite answer: Jacques Plante. Plante played from age 24 through age 44. While not all the way through, it's remarkable how he was seemingly done after the 1964-65 season. He attempted a comeback, got denied by the Rangers because they had his rights. Plante got free as he was picked up by St. Louis for the 1968-69 season. There, he played 37 very good games, won the Vezina, and backstopped them to the Stanley Cup Finals only to fall to Montreal - at the age of 40. Then Plante did it again, got moved to Toronto where had another great season at age 42. Mind you, this is all at the backend of Plante's career. In his prime, Plante backstopped one of the greatest Montreal dynasties ever as the team won Cups from 1956 through 1960. Plante won the Vezina in each of those seasons as well. He won the Vezina and the Hart in 1961-62 in his last great season with Montreal. All of this while popularizing the use of a facial mask, something now standard with all goaltenders. If save percentage was recorded back then, then we'd have a better idea of how good he was or was not at the time, but I'd say Plante is heads and shoulders above most goalies. Maybe all of them. Maybe he's the best of all time?
There are some others from the league's past that could be considered to be better than Brodeur. Tony Esposito was pretty much a rock in the 1970s for the Chicago Blackhawks. His Calder-winning, Vezina-winning, near-Hart-winning 1969-70 season featured a single season record that still holds today (15 shutouts). While the Blackhawks fell apart by the mid-1970s, Esposito was still the one constant good for the franchise until he retired in 1983-84. Ken Dryden played in eight regular seasons for Montreal. The stand-up goalie led them to six Stanley Cups. He earned five Vezinas, a Conn Smythe for his first playoff Cup, and the Calder in his second regular season since the first was only six games. The knocks on Dryden are two-fold: he played on a fantastically talented team and he only played eight seasons. Still, he absolutely shined among Montreal's all-stars and they weren't winning so many Cups after he left. Lastly, there's Glenn Hall. Hall played in the same era as Plante. Yet, Hall still managed to win three Vezinas, a Stanley Cup in 1961, a Conn Smythe with St. Louis in 1967 in one of the few times it was awarded to a non-Cup winner, and achieve one of the craziest records that no goalie could touch: consecutive games played. Hall played 502 straight games. And these were good games. He was the originator of the butterfly style, too. Again, these three also come from an era where the stats are scarcer than one would like it to be for a comparison. But if you were to say Brodeur wasn't necessarily superior to these three, then I wouldn't protest.
And I don't think is a bad bunch to be ahead of New Jersey's #30. Hasek, Roy, Plante, and maybe Dryden, Hall, and Esposito. That's six Hall of Famers - Brodeur will absolutely join the Hall of Fame in time. That's six goalies who were often seen as the best they ever seen by their fans at their respective times. To some, this whole post may come across as a put down of Brodeur. I don't follow. This thought process of mine confirms to me that he's one of the best goalies of all time. Only a handful are ahead of him. It's going to be sometime before someone else does. Is being a top-ten NHL goalie in history a put down? No. It confirms what I said from the start. That growing up watching Brodeur, I was watching one of the best ever. Not the best ever, but one of the best. Definitely New Jersey's best.
In any case, I hope this sort of explanation on where I think Brodeur would rank among the other great goaltenders of the NHL is something of interest. Where do you think Brodeur would rank? Who's better? Who's worse? Who else should've been considered and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Brodeur in the comments. Thank you for reading.