The great thing about sports is that arguing about the best players is done primarily with statistics. They are, in theory, absolute. The great thing about statistics is that almost any set of numbers can be made to look like whatever you want: beneficial, hindering, or innocuous. The great thing about hockey is that there are statistics that can be quoted, but they almost assuredly do not mean anything. The team that wins a hockey game is usually the harder working team, which does not mean they necessarily have the most amount of shots, the most talent, or anything more than the most goals.
Many think Martin Brodeur, the backstop for the New Jersey Devils – who begin their Stanley Cup Finals series with the Los Angeles Kings tonight – is the best goaltender of all time. There are also quite a few people who believe that it's former Canadiens and Avalanche great Patrick Roy, and usually quote statistics that diminish Brodeur’s accomplishments rather than heighten Roy’s.
If you do not know anything about the two goalies, Martin Brodeur holds the record for most regular season wins, shutouts, games played by a goaltender, minutes played, and saves. Patrick Roy is second in many of those categories except for most notable one, shutouts, which was held by Terry Sawchuk at 103 before Brodeur broke it in 2009. Patrick Roy holds the record for most playoff games played and most playoff wins (Brodeur is second in these categories). Brodeur and Roy are currently tied with the most playoff shutouts.
While the two goalies have very similar statistics, they do not play a similar style of goaltending. Patrick Roy is famous for making the butterfly style famous. (Although he was not the first to utilize it. Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender for the Soviet Red Army team in the 1970s and 1980s, was the first to show the style’s worth.) The butterfly is a goaltending technique where the goalie drops down on his legs, opening them up like a butterfly’s wings to block most of the lower portion of the net. It is a very successful technique – many opposing players have a small percentage of success when shooting low and must shoot the puck towards the higher areas of the net in order to score.
Martin Brodeur plays a hybrid style that utilizes aspects of the butterfly, but has a base in the stand-up style of goaltending. A stand-up goaltender, which is growing increasingly more rare in the modern NHL game, plays the angles to cut down areas of the net that are open to the shooter. It is a more statistical style of play in that more of the net is open to the shooter, but the positioning and athleticism of the goaltender is key to making the save.
One of the most important statistics that a goalie can be rated by is their save percentage. This statistic can nearly tell the whole story because it is simply the amount of saves a goalie makes per the amount of shots faced. Many would think that the two goalies are at least in the top five in career save percentage, owing to the fact that they have been successful, but that is not the case. In the regular season Brodeur is tied with his 2003 Stanley Cup foe Jean-Sebastian Giguere at 16 with a .9130 save percentage while Patrick Roy sits at 24 with a .9102 percentage. (Dominik Hasek, another outstanding modern goalie, is first all time with .9223 percent.) These statistics, while very good, are not even close to being the best all time.
The common argument against Brodeur is that his team, the New Jersey Devils, played a mostly defensive style of hockey that does not allow many shots on Brodeur. Less shots means an easier game for Brodeur to win. In the regular season, Brodeur has faced an average 25 shots a game to Roy's 28. In the playoffs, Brodeur sees an average of 27 shots to Roy's 30 (Dominik Hasek has 24 regular season and 26 in the playoffs). Three shots hardly seems like a big enough difference to make a compelling argument. Keeping in mind their save percentages, it is unlikely that any of these shots would result in a goal.
The interesting angle of this argument is the argument arises from the system the New Jersey Devils play. It is famously called “The Trap.” It is a simple setup by the defensive team where one forward is fore-checking the offensive team as the puck is out of the opposing team's zone, trying to cause him to give up the puck. The other two forwards are further down the ice in the neutral zone, followed in step by the two defensemen. The setup is called a 1-2-2. It becomes very hard for the offensive team to break through the trap as the defensive players clog the center area of the ice. Many times the offensive team will flip the puck into the other team’s defensive zone and try to retrieve it or try to skate the puck through the center of the ice. Regardless, the 1-2-2 is designed to retrieve the puck in either case.
The interesting aspect of this is not the fact that the Devils play this system, but who coaches them in this style of play. Larry Robinson, a great defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens, has been on the Devils coaching staff for many years. He was hired in 1993 as an assistant, won the Stanley Cup in 1995, and was rehired in 2000 as the head coach, winning the franchise's second Stanley Cup in 2000. He was fired subsequently thereafter, and has been on the coaching staff ever since the 2002-3 series.
He also happens to be one of the most decorated defensemen of all time. Robinson played with the Montreal Canadiens between 1972 and 1989, during which he won 6 Stanley Cups, the last in 1989 – a team that was backstopped by Patrick Roy. The Canadiens were one of the first teams to employ the trapping style of play the Devils have long been criticized for, a style implemented by Robinson and former coaches such as Jacques Lemaire, another former Canadiens player. Patrick Roy benefited from the trap early in his career, earning two Stanley Cups and no real critiques.
Martin Brodeur is not a stat accumulator. He has had his named etched on the Stanley Cup three times over his 16 years, all as the starting goaltender. He has at least four games left in his career as the Devils, which will conclude his current contract. If the Devils win, Brodeur will tie Patrick Roy with four Stanley Cup championships. After that, all of Brodeur’s other accomplishments are icing on the cake to a career that will leave him to be thought of as the best goaltender of all time.