I came across an otherwise intelligent blog, that appears to have been around a long time, maddeningly called “Brodeur was a fraud.” This post in particular, argues that he was merely good, and consistent, but overall, lucky to play behind solid defense, and face fewer shots than his peers.
Marty’s lower number of shots faced, and lower save percentage, are obvious targets for anyone wanting to diminish his greatness. I reject those claims, and I’ll explain why. Jaromir Jagr was asked, when Marty was retiring, what it was that made him special, and he touched on it. “When you played the Devils, you faced not only a good goaltender, but an extra half-defenceman, always playing deep in his zone. When you tried to dump the puck in, you couldn’t retrieve it, because he’d get to it, and competently play it off to a teammate. You were at a huge disadvantage, because you could not race the defenceman to the puck and get it off him. The effect of that was that he would always face less shots than anyone else, and you had fewer scoring chances.”
So while we were always a very good defensive team, it would be unfair not to point out that Marty was an integral part of that defence. But it goes deeper than that. Marty understood that preventing a shot against was more valuable than allowing it, and hoping to save it. And he tailored his game to that philosophy, which is directly responsible for his lower number of shots against, lower save percentage, but also fewer goals against.
Today, goalies all tend to play a passive butterfly style. By passive, I mean they wait for the play to happen, and only react once the shot has been taken. Time and again, you see the centering pass come within a foot or two of the post, and the goalie does nothing to intercept it. He’s preparing to face the shooter at the other end, and hoping to stop him. And to be fair, they’re better at it than they used to be. But what’s the save percentage for the best of today’s goalies, against a point blank shot from the slot? 0.7? That might even be generous. Marty instead would reach out with his stick, and block the pass at the moment it was taken. True, any beer-league goalie can do this, with a little practice. But how many do, even in the NHL? Very few. Prevent those shots from even happening, and you have fewer shots taken against you. But you allow fewer goals. I know which one I’d rather have.
Another example is the centering pass, which often comes into the reach of a goalie stick. Today’s robo-goalies will allow the pass, and set up to stop the shot. Again, what’s their save percentage on that? It’s not over 0.900, I can assure you of that. Instead, Marty would tip the pass with his stick, sending it into the air, and off-course. That’s easy with curved goalie stick blades. Nearly all the time, that meant no shot on goal, and hence no goal. Statistically, the play never happened, and Marty got no credit for the save. On the very rare occasion that the player managed to bat the puck out of the air, he would usually score. So while Marty would reduce the number of shots against, and the number of goals, he probably worsened his save percentage in the process. But which scenario is better for you, as a coach or GM? Fewer goals against with a lower save percentage, I would say, without hesitation.
I remember when LA beat New York for the Stanley Cup recently. It was a goal against Lunquist that went off his pad, straight to the winger, waiting for it as though it were a pass, which it kind of was. You bank it off his pad to where you want it to go, and count on the fact that he’ll be on the ice, leaving you the open net for your rebound. That first shot was an easy one to stop. It was the rebound that was the planned payoff. Had that been Marty in net, I think he would have used his stick, and flicked the rebound up into the air. It would have gone into the corner, and hit the glass, or even over the glass and into the crowd. A player trying to play the rebound would have to be a lot closer, and bat it out of the air, possibly with a high stick. What’s his likelihood of success on that? A heck of a lot lower than playing the easy rebound.
I’ve always thought of Marty as the best not because he was the most athletic goalie, though I take nothing away from him in that department either. He was the best because he used his brain like no other. He understood that the trend to all-butterfly, that happened during his career, was effective at some things, but less effective at others. And he knew that he was smart enough to decide for himself when to use it, and when not to use it. Look at all the guys today who use it on sharp angle shots, and expose the whole top of the net, without increasing their coverage down low, where the angle makes it easy to cover the width standing up. When there’s nothing to shoot at, the shooter often shoots wide, or tries something else and loses the puck. Ergo, no shot on net, to bolster your save percentage, but no goal, either. So while Jagr kind of nailed it, there was a lot more to it. Marty’s lower shot total was to a great extend of his own doing, and those shots that were taken were inherently more dangerous. But the balance always tipped towards fewer goals against. Had he played like the robo-goalies of today, there would have been more shots against, probably a higher save percentage, but more goals against in the balance. I’ll take Marty any day.