Martin Brodeur never asked to be one of the divisive players in the “stats vs. observation” argument, but we ended up here. Before I even knew what a “blog” was, Alan Ryder wrote that “Brodeur was basically the same goaltender in 2004. He still plays behind the league’s
best defense and he still doesn’t deserve the Vezina.”

Ryder’s research is based around a ‘shot quality’ premise that a lot of modern hockey statisticians are skeptical about. Most shot quality studies involve shot locations provided by NHL.com, but two identical shots from the same location will be rung up officially differently in New Jersey than, say, at Madison Square Garden. With that in mind, however, we can all kind of agree that Brodeur’s success has largely to do with playing behind one of the best defence’s in the NHL for a long time: they prevented shots, it wasn’t just keeping the quality of shots low.

Put it this way: between the two lockouts in 1994-95 and 2004-05, 27 NHL goaltenders started at least 300 games. Brodeur was 1st on the list in wins, shutouts and goals against average, by considerable margins. His save percentage ranked 4th, however, behind Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy, and Jose Theodore. [Hockey Reference]

My belief is generally that a goalie controls his save percentage more than anything else. The team in front of the goaltender controls allowed shots and scored goals. The rest is up to the goalkeeper. If there is a team that was good at doing both, such as this season’s Pittsburgh Penguins or the New Jersey Devils circa 1994-2004, the goalie has a high chance of racking up a low goals against average and a gaudy wins total.

Brodeur’s name has been incorrectly linked to some of the game’s greats, such as Terry Sawchuk. Many of Brodeur’s records: wins, Stanley Cups, shutouts, are counting statistics, present because Brodeur has simply been in the game of hockey for such a long time. When you stack his even strength numbers up next to Patrick Roy or Dominik Hasek for what we have available since 1998, they fail in comparison:

Career EV SV%
Dominik Hasek .933
Patrick Roy .928
Martin Brodeur .921

Then you have to take into account the fact that the average save percentage in the NHL actually increased post-lockout. The league combined save percentage weighted by overall shots signifies that an average goalie in Hasek and Roy’s careers would have a .915 EV SV%. The average goalie in Martin Brodeur’s world has a .917 thanks to a higher overall level of goalkeeping after the lockout.

In discussing Roberto Luongo at Canucks Army, I created a measure for comparing goalies historically called SV%+. By taking league average goaltending, you can find whether a goalie performed significantly above or below average when looking at the two. I’ve created it so that a SV%+ of .900 is exactly average:

EV SV%+
Dominik Hasek .920
Patrick Roy .914
Martin Brodeur .904

Here you see that Brodeur was only slightly better than league average through the 14 available seasons. Remove his last two, where he has put up below average numbers, and you’re left with an EV SV%+ of .906. It’s not terrific.

But here’s the thing: Martin Brodeur has done it for 14 seasons. For no other goaltender do we have such a blend of available statistics to judge and infer based on the opinion of hockey scorekeepers from 1993 to 2012. Roy never played post-lockout, and Hasek’s best years are obscured by a lack of even strength shot statistics.

Take the best seasons of SV%+ and line them up on a spreadsheet, and Brodeur’s name first appears 40th on the list, thanks to a very good 1998 season where he had an EV SV% of .928 with a league average of .915. This makes his SV%+ worth .914, tied with Byron Dafoe in 1999, Ron Tugnutt in 2001 and Ray Emery in 2007. But these are all blip seasons. Brodeur is a model of consistency. Slightly above-average consistency, and in the past two seasons he has been below that. He is getting old, but the counting statistics, the wins and Stanley Cup appearances, continue to grow.

While Brodeur is first in career wins, he is also first in career losses. Being the active leader in goals against average also means he is the active leader in goals against. Mike Smith and Brian Elliott both put up fantastic years this year, but they aren’t good enough as Brodeur to continually put up respectable numbers for years.

Brodeur will end his career a little more overrated than he ought to be, but nothing is obscured for him. Brodeur broke Sawchuk’s records, but we don’t know under what circumstances Sawchuk initially set them. No numerals, just stories, can help explain exactly what Terry Sawchuk exactly was.

What we know about Brodeur is that he is the only goalie to have been a little above average nearly every year of his career since the beginning of the 1990s. The other thing to know is that whatever it is Brodeur has been doing, he’s been in decline the last two seasons. He was 27th among starting goalies in EV SV%. James Mirtle even described the Devils’ goaltending as a weakness heading into the Stanley Cup Finals.

Overrated, perhaps. He was never great, but he was consistent. The greatness of a goaltender like Jonathan Quick has been replicated many times before by goaltenders, but never for 12 consecutive seasons. For this, Brodeur deserves credit, even if it means that the Devils have a clear disadvantage on the goaltending front going into these Cup Finals. Because it’s his career as a whole, not a single series or game, that will shape him.