Like many other hockey fans, I've been considering over the last few days where Martin Brodeur's latest accomplishments place him on the true list of the all-time greats. And as I did the research and put in the thought, an opinion I've long held was reinforced: there's a difference between the greatness of a player and the greatness of a career.
That's not to say that there isn't a healthy degree of overlap between the two. One can't, it seems, have a great career without being a great player, and vice versa. But the definitions of "great player" and "great career" are slightly different. Both require a healthy degree of talent, success, recognition and perseverance, true. But a great player does not (always) need a great team or the best career totals: a great player only needs the talent and the time to establish himself as a dominate player in his era. To have a great career, though, a player needs to mix his individual successes with both team success and above-average longevity. For example, one could argue that while Cam Neely and Rod Brind'Amour were both great players with great careers, Neely was the greater player while Brind'Amour had the greater career. Get it?
At this point, there can be little doubt that Martin Brodeur will retire with the greatest career of any goaltender in NHL history. He has the individual accolades: four-time winner of the Vezina and Jennings trophies. He's got the team successes: the Devils have been always good, often great during his time there and have three Stanley Cups to prove it. And, he now owns the all-time record for regular season victories (he'll have the shutout record soon, too). And, my does he have the longevity: 14 straight seasons as the Devils' uncontested starter, usually playing 70-plus games -- and he's only 36. Throw in three more seasons with a (very modest) estimate of 30 wins per campaign, and he'll have about 650. Make those numbers a little more ambitious, and he's looking at 700 or more.
But, now that we've agreed that Marty has had the greatest career, we now ask: was he the greatest player? Did he dominate his position and his era more than any other goaltender in NHL history? While making comparisons between eras is downright impossible (who can really objectively compare Brodeur and, say, George Hainsworth), I can make comparisons based on goalies I've seen and have played in similar or coterminous eras. But even if we limit our comparisons to this narrow scope of time, I think the answer, still, is "No." Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Brodeur -- as I said, you don't have a great career without being a great player, and you don't have the greatest career of all time without being one of the greatest players of all time. But Brodeur, for as good as he was, was not the greatest player of his era.
Patrick Roy? Please. The man who stands in the way is Dominik Hasek. Brodeur and Roy have the last laugh, career-wise, but none of them ever owned their position, perhaps even the league, like the Dominator did.
Considering that, over the last several seasons, the still-youngish Brodeur has continued to thrive while the old and brittle Hasek finally (for what, the third or fourth time?) finally saw his career wind down (and also that Hasek won all of his major hardware during or before 2001, while Brodeur's first Vezina came in 2003), one might suspect that it was Hasek that established himself first, and Brodeur eclipsing his former marks.
What people forget, though, is that both Brodeur and Hasek began their run as full-time starting goaltenders in the same season: 1993-94. The difference? Brodeur was 21; Hasek was 28.
It wasn't simply that Hasek was a Tim Thomas-style late bloomer. Hasek joined the top level of hockey in the Czechoslovakia in 1981, when he was just 16 years old. From 1986 to 1990 he was goaltender of the year in the Czechoslovak Extraliga; in 1987, 1989 and 1990 he was also player of the year.
But, it was the Cold War, and NHL teams were wary (perhaps with good reason) of bringing over players from beyond the Iron Curtain. Drafted in the 10th round in 1983, Hasek didn't get a contract offer from Chicago until 1987, and didn't make his NHL debut until the 1990-91 season.
It probably didn't help that Hasek had such an, ahem, unorthodox style. The Blackhawks thought so highly of him, they traded him for goaltender Stephane Beauregard and future considerations.
It also probably didn't help that while in Chicago, Hasek was competing with Ed Belfour (who is Hasek's age but had already won a Vezina) and, once in Buffalo, he was stuck behind Grant Fuhr. It wasn't until Fuhr was injured that Hasek got a real chance.
And, we all know what he did with it. In his first full season as a started, Hasek took home the Vezina, a feat he would repeat five more times over the next seven seasons. He'd also take home two Hart Trophies and two Pearson Awards in consecutive seasons. Brodeur's record? No Harts, no Pearsons and four Vezinas -- all of them coming after the Dominator turned 38.
But in case you're a little put off by the subjectivity of awards, let's take a look at a more statistical indication of Hasek's dominance.
Save percentage began to be tracked as a legitimate statistic in 1983. Over that time, Hasek has compiled the best career average (.922), comfortably ahead of second-place Roberto Luongo (.919). Brodeur sits in seventh with .913. There's another interesting thing about the list -- Hasek is the only retired player in the top 12 -- Patrick Roy (13th) has the next highest retired average at .91. The rest of the top 12 -- Luongo, Lundqvist, Vokoun, Giguere, Brodeur, Kiprusoff, Fernandez, Legace, Biron, Nabokov -- are almost universally in their early 30s, and if they all play until they're 40, their career averages are likely to decrease slightly.
On a season-by-season basis, again, there's no comparison to Hasek. He led the league in the statistic six consecutive years (1993-94 until 1998-99), often by wide margins: .01 points over Trevor Kidd in 1998, .011 points over Byron Dafoe in 1999, and a staggering .013 points over Chris Osgood and Jocelyn Thibault in 1995.
Perhaps most notably, even if we assume that Tim Thomas keeps his average at around .93 for the rest of this season, Dominik Hasek would still own five of the twelve best save percentage seasons ever (since the stat was invented, of course), including the best ever (.937 in 1999). No other goalie appears more than once in the top 12. (Brodeur's best, .927, is merely good for sixteenth.)
As a side note, the two men have nearly identical career GAA: Brodeur sits in seventh all time with 2.2, Hasek in eighth with 2.202. Both are fantastic marks that only elite goaltenders could approach. But, Brodeur accomplished his with the help of Scott Steven, Scott Niedermayer, Jacques Lemaire and the neutral zone trap. Hasek accomplished his with … the 1990s Buffalo Sabres. Enough said.
Now that we're a year removed from Hasek's last NHL game and eight years from his last Vezina Trophy, perhaps many are too young, or to forgetful, to remember the kind of mastery and slinky-ness that the 44-year-old from Pardubice was capable of in his heyday. In 2009, the Dominator is probably better known for his frequent retirements, freak injuries, on-ice eccentricities (goodness, I used to get heart tremors whenever he came out to the blue line to play the puck) and, in the end, perhaps hanging on a little too long. And while that's understandable, it's also a little sad. And, a little unfair.
Hasek never really had a chance to have the "greatest career." Communism and the North American bias robbed him, arguably, of the first six or so years of his NHL career. As frightening as it sounds, Hasek may have spent the best years of his career -- the years which his NHL potential would have been the highest -- in Czechoslovakia. He never had the stifling defense of the New Jersey Devils or the elite firepower of the Colorado Avalanche (Peca and Satan make lousy stand-ins for Sakic and Forsberg) -- at least, he never did in Buffalo, during the years when his individual skill set was at its best. And, to be fair, his occasional inability to determine when (and how long) to quit cut into his career totals, considerably. For these reasons and others, Hasek will always be at a disadvantage in comparisons to Brodeur in Roy whenever the distinction between player and career is not made.
But this much I know is true: Even if Martin Brodeur plays six more years and ends up with 800 wins, he'll never dominate the game like Hasek did from 1993 to 2001. That's not a knock on Brodeur, who at 36 has already has had a better career than that of any goaltender before him. But the greatest goaltender of all time? That's one record that Martin Brodeur might never be able to break.