Brodeur: soon to be greatest?

This month 37-year old New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur won his 102nd career shutout victory in a 2-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. The achievement put Brodeur one shutout shy of tying Terry Sawchuk’s all-time career shutout record and, similarly, one shutout shy of owning the two most lauded records for a goaltender in NHL history — most career shutouts and most career wins. The Montréal native claimed the title of most career wins in the 2008-09 season when he surpassed childhood idol Patrick Roy for his 552nd career victory as an NHL goaltender. For all intents and purposes, Brodeur is basically a lock to surpass Sawchuk’s shutout mark this season and when he does there will undoubtedly be any number of sports columnists and media pundits questioning whether or not he is indeed the greatest goaltender of all time. Why, though, does this question only emerge in relation to his statistical records; why are numbers so important in ranking the greatest of the greats?

I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate what Wayne Gretzky was doing in the 1980s but as a sports fan I do know that Gretzky holds the record for most goals scored in one season (92), most assists in one season (163), most career points (2,857), along with a myriad of other supremely impressive distinctions to his name. Gretzky also won the Stanley Cup four times as captain of the Edmonton Oilers, an accomplishment that has always been the unspoken criterion by which each player’s legacy is judged. Both Brodeur and Roy have won the cup several times so it is never difficult to imagine their names among the greats; their excellence raised their respective teams to the game’s ultimate prize.

Still, there is something odd about ranking a player’s relative greatness by means of records and numbers that don’t actually help much in identifying what is specifically unique about a given hockey player. Gretzky, for example, was a fairly soft player who avoided checks to find a better offensive position on the ice. Mark Messier on the other hand was more of a grinder who came about his points in a more hard noise manner. These two players were miles apart in terms of their style of play and personality yet they represent the number one and two spots in the NHL’s all-time scoring list. It would seem the more you use statistics and records to compare players to each other the more shallow and useless your characterizations are likely to become.

Take Brian Boucher, an NHL goaltender who owns the modern day record for longest shutout streak. In 2003-04 Boucher played 332 minutes, the equivalent of five and a half games, without ever letting in a single goal. In the last 60 years no goalie has kept the puck out of the net for as long a stretch as Boucher. What the record doesn’t explain, though, is that this flash of brilliance was only an aberration in the career of a goaltender who frequently splits time between the pro teams and the minors. Boucher has never truly had a full-time starting job in the NHL but he holds one of its most impressive records.

On the flip side of this equation, there are players who in all likelihood should have more credits to their name. Look up any profile for Peter Forsberg and you’ll find a player who’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion as well as a Calder and Art Ross trophy winner (rookie of the year and league MVP, respectively). Those are nice titles but they more than fail to portray the fact that for nearly 10 years Forsberg was head and shoulders above all else in the NHL, arguably the best forward to play the game from about 1995 to 2003. Look up Cam Neely and you’ll find a player with nearly no awards and no records to his name. Neely went to the Stanley Cup finals twice and was the NHL’s first prototypical power forward, a player who could simultaneously lead the team in goals, hits and penalty minutes.

Obviously, then, statistics and records are prone to betray players once they are no longer playing. Athletes who are long retired rarely get any form of reprieve outside of the numbers attached to their names. Because the game continually changes from one era to another, and because the past seldom gets contextualized in conversations about the present, it’s always problematic to compare one great player to another, statistically or otherwise.

Brodeur will certainly go on to claim the all-time shutout record and when he does he’ll have a resumé impressive enough to convince many that he is the best to ever play the game. Since the discussion will be prompted by his statistics, though, he will also be judged based on his statistics and compared to all others by the same method. These numbers work well to track progress over a game or over a season but when they are extrapolated and taken out of context they can only paint an inaccurate picture. Brodeur will technically surpass Sawchuk’s 103 shutouts but will do so in name only because the numbers being used aren’t measuring the same thing; a shutout in the early ‘50s is different than a shutout in 2009. All of this isn’t to say that Brodeur is not the best ever; just that it is easier to say he is the best for us, right now.