Saturday, March 14, 2009

The relative impossibility of judging Brodeur's greatness relative to the greats

Martin Brodeur is not a Fraud.

That, ultimately, might not be the true point of Brodeur is a Fraud, but it is something that must be said nonetheless. You don't threaten all-time records in wins and shutouts just because you have a good team in front of you.

The tricky part, though, is assessing any player in any sport compared to other players of similar greatness in different eras. Hockey is one of the truest team sports and is also a very diverse game from generation to generation.

For years, goalies could not even go down to the ice to stop a puck. The Bobby Orr era brought about a difficult time for tenders, but the Wayne Gretzky just about nuked GAA and save percentage stats.

Then, of course, there was the Dead Puck Era. A time in which the 100-point fire hydrants of the Eighties were replaced by goalies being outfitted like tanks producing once-unthinkable sub-2.00 GAA seasons.

Patrick Roy won a Cup in both eras. Martin Brodeur enjoyed his prime years in the no-score years. Some say Roy was better; some say Dominik Hasek was better than both.

But beyond his peers, how do you really compare Brodeur to ... Jacques Plante? To Georges Vezina? To Ken Dryden?

The John Hollingers of the world think that you can adjust stats to tell you anything, but the problem is that these players weren't worried about micro managing save percentages. Is it fair to say that (throwing out the steroid talk for a moment) Barry Bonds was, cleanly or not, a better home run hitter than Babe Ruth? Bonds hit more homers, but Ruth out-homered opposing teams in his day. Relatively speaking, Ruth was Gretzky-like. Incomparable. But can you say he's a better dinger-man than Bonds? It's futile.

Brodeur's career, to me, is quite a lot like Emmitt Smith's. Both players were among the best in their position in their primes. Both were seemingly indestructible compared to their peers, allowing them to amass staggering numbers. And both were, at least slightly, damned by the fact that they played along with Hall of Fame teammates and lacked the artfulness of their best counterparts. They even share the similar quality of owning three championship rings.

Brodeur is to Smith as Dominik Hasek is to Barry Sanders.

(Although Brodeur probably butchers English less often than Smith, even if it might be his second language.)

Right now, people are trotting out "but he got his stats beefed up by SO wins!" and that's fine. It's relevant. But he's 36 years old. If he plays 4-6 years, he could add 100 to 150 wins to his totals. Will that make him the best goalie of all-time?

Some will probably say yes, others will turn red faced and scream "No!"; there is simply no way to truly know. Ultimately, it's subjective: once the stats melt away it's all about nostalgia, rooting interest, what games you get to see and stylistic preferences.

How about, instead of grinding your teeth fighting for or against Brodeur, you just enjoy being alive to see records being broken? After all, it may take a few generations to break Marty's records. Might as well make THE BEST of it.


jamestobrien said...

I was going to put Sanders and Hasek side-by-side but couldn't find a great photographic example of DH's slinky spine. Any photo suggestions, commenters?

Frisby said...

It's funny, when the news broke that Brodeur was going to miss four months this season, a lot of people said that the Devils were going to miss the playoffs. Now Marty is back and tying records and they say it's because he plays behind a great team. Well which is it, do the Devils win because of Marty or does Marty win because of the Devils? I think it's both. I don't think either would have the success they have enjoyed without the other. But as you say, there is no way to truly know.

I do know that when I watched Brodeur and the Devils win their first Cup, I never imagined that 14 years later I would be watching history in the making. Heck, when Marty signed his last contract I crunched the numbers and his averages showed it was possible he could set new records, but I still didn't expect it. It wasn't guaranteed. It's all so surreal.

jamestobrien said...

My other question is: What else would Brodeur need to do to satisfy people. Would it make it up to everyone if he simply saved one percent more shots?

Frisby said...

Well, first he has to win enough regulation games to make up for the ones that were won via shootout (somewhere around 32 I think). Then he has to win another Stanley Cup and get the Conn Smythe. The flip side to that Con Smythe trophy though is that so many goalies have won it recently that people have grown so tired of goalies winning it that it wouldn't mean much if they gave it to a goalie again.

Add to the fact that people only remember the winners and not the runners up. Claude Lemeuix and Scott Stevens may have taken home the leafy looking hardware in 1995 and 2000, but I'm sure that Marty was a close runner up. Then there's 2003 when Brodeur had 3 shutouts in the finals but it was still given to JSG.

I don't think there is anything more that he could do besides curing cancer that would sway naysayers the other way.

jamestobrien said...

You're right, Frisby. I think at this point people have made their mind up about Brodeur. He could retire right now and have a career that almost every goalie alive would kill for. It's all gravy to me at this point.

The Contrarian Goaltender said...

My other question is: What else would Brodeur need to do to satisfy people. Would it make it up to everyone if he simply saved one percent more shots?

Absolutely. If he saved one percent more shots over his career he'd be ahead of Hasek in save percentage, and with his durability it would then be pretty tough to make a case for anyone else. But an extra 1% is no "simple" thing, it's about the difference between Brodeur and Tommy Salo, and would result in a difference of hundreds of goals against over the course of an entire career.

I don't think there is anything more that he could do besides curing cancer that would sway naysayers the other way.

I disagree. As one of the biggest naysayers around (although you are obviously correct, James, that Brodeur is not literally a fraud), it has little to do with his team success and everything to do with his personal statistics.

Wins are an irrelevant team stat, and it wouldn't change much for me if Brodeur wins another Stanley Cup on an excellent team since he's done that three times already. I want to see Brodeur dominate the league in save percentage for a few seasons, and winning or coming close to a Hart Trophy would help as well. Right now his peak is simply nowhere close to Hasek or Roy, and regardless of career length you have to be in the same ballpark in peak value to be considered on an equal level (think of the reasons why you would rate Bobby Orr ahead of Nicklas Lidstrom, for example, as they are the same reasons why Hasek should be rated a level above Brodeur).

If I was picking award winners, Brodeur would only have won one Vezina. Lots of players have been good for a long time, but very few have completely dominated the league. Brodeur's durability sets him apart from the most of the other good guys, but in my view he doesn't have the dominance to crack that inner circle of the greatest ever, and he won't unless he starts playing better now than he ever has in his entire career.

jamestobrien said...

If my memory serves me correctly, CG is the person who first brought my attention the very telling stat Joe Pelletier alluded to:

Despite playing in 60 fewer games, Hasek faced 925 more shots than Brodeur. Yet he allowed 135 fewer goals.

There is no way you can get around that stat. I think Roy vs. Brodeur is a stalemate, but it's pretty tough for me to say that anyone was better than Hasek.

For me, the most underrated fact for Hasek is that he had some of his prime years cut off by politics. He would have had a better chance to hit some of those "quantity" marks if he started earlier ... although he might have worn down earlier as well.

And I'll admit that one percent higher does matter quite a bit more over the span of a thousand games.

This is what happens when smart people refute my points :)

jamestobrien said...

The one thing I do disagree with, to a point, is goalie wins being irrelevant. Certainly, much of a win has to do with your quality of team and opponent. A goalie can only score on an open net, after all.

But I don't think they should be thrown out the window entirely, either. Say what you will about Brodeur's importance to the Devils' run, he's won in the NHL and in International play. It's not his fault that he happened to play for the best collection of hockey humans (Canada) and the best defensive team of an era (NJD).

Ultimately, I feel like there's some intangible qualities like context that factor slightly into save percentage. Almost an untouchable "need" factor. Luongo and Hasek absolutely needed to have unreal save percentages while Brodeur often could win even if he allowed more goals on less shots. Now, no goalie ever wants to allow ANY goals. That's pretty obvious.

In my mind, the only thing that could have changed the outlook on Brodeur would be if he somehow left New Jersey for a mediocre team. But that probably won't ever happen, at least for his prime years (which are dwindling if not gone).

This all comes back to the fact that it's simply difficult, for me at least, to truly assess Brodeur. In my mind, we'll simply never truly know his peak since he was (comparatively) rarely challenged.