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Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Updated: March 18, 6:10 PM ET
Brodeur the best? There's no debate

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

In five years, this won't really be much of a discussion at all.

Barring a major change in Martin Brodeur's most important professional characteristic -- his durability -- he will have all but lapped the field by the time he has completed his NHL career.

Tuesday in Newark, N.J., he was hoping to smash Patrick Roy's all-time record for career NHL wins with victory No. 552. With three years left on his current contract, the 36-year-old Brodeur is likely to add another 100 or more wins to his total by the time he retires.

Who's going to touch that?

He needs four shutouts, meanwhile, to break Terry Sawchuk's all-time record for career shutouts of 103. By retirement, he'll probably have 120 or more. That'll take Columbus' Steve Mason only about 12 years to break -- as long as he averages 10 shutouts a season.

All the important records will have been demolished by Brodeur by the time he's finished playing, which means for someone to argue somewhere down the line that there was a better NHL goalie will mean essentially ignoring the record book and relying totally on opinion or aesthetics.

In fact, you can argue that buttressing Brodeur's standing as the best ever is the reality he may be playing the game's toughest position at the most difficult time in the history of the sport.

Yes, the equipment is better than ever, certainly safer than anything Glenn Hall wore (no wonder he threw up before every game).

But modern sticks mean the shots are a great deal harder, and everyone shoots the puck. Rule changes in recent years have made the offensive zone larger, traffic in the crease more problematic for netminders and have taken away the ability of goalies to play the puck and relieve pressure in their defensive zones.

You might argue the game was better to watch in another era, but never has it been more physically and mentally demanding on the top goaltenders.

And Brodeur still seems intent on proving he's the best.

Others were more flamboyant, like Patrick Roy, and had colorful nicknames, like the China Wall (Johnny Bower), Mister Zero (Frank Brimsek) and The Dominator (Dominik Hasek). Others were more controversial, like Sawchuk. Others, like Hall, were hard competitors. Hasek was as inventive, if not more so. Grant Fuhr was more obviously athletic.

Moreover, while all of those goaltenders have their supporters, none really has what could be considered a widely held strike leveled stubbornly against him by critics.

Brodeur, curiously, does.

That would be the fact that since entering the NHL, he has played for the New Jersey Devils. Without that team's suffocating approach to the game, the argument goes in some corners, Brodeur would never have been able to achieve the heights which he has scaled.

That playing his entire career for a team once labeled a "Mickey Mouse organization" by Wayne Gretzky is viewed as a whopping advantage by some is, to say the least, historically amusing. As well, of the three Devils championship teams, none will be confused with the greatest clubs ever to grace the ice. Many goalies have played on better teams than Brodeur.

When Brodeur played his first game for the Devils in March 1992, they were an improving, emerging franchise, but hardly a powerhouse. Moreover, they were a team still in search of a personality.

That personality was supplied by Jacques Lemaire when he arrived for the 1993-94 season. It was GM Lou Lamoriello's admiration for the Montreal Canadiens that led him to Lemaire's doorstep, and Lemaire introduced the same style and values to the Jersey squad.

Defense first. Team over individual. Energy and hard work trump talent.

It was that season Brodeur, for the first time, played more than half of Jersey's games, giving the team its first bona fide starting goaltender since Sean Burke. It was equal parts of Lemaire and Brodeur, then, that made the Devils develop into the type of team they became.

That said, it's a mistake to treat the Devils as if they've been the same clogging, mind-numbing, excitement-killing team for the past 16 seasons, with Brodeur as the key beneficiary basically leaning on his goal stick with nothing to do.

There have been times, such as during the era when Jason Arnott, Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias were one of hockey's most dangerous forward lines, when the Devils were the best offensive team in the NHL. They missed the playoffs after winning their first Cup in 1995, and were bounced in the first round in 1998 and 1999, again in 2004 and last season.

Yes, at times, New Jersey boasted a terrific blue-line corps that included Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko. In recent seasons, however, players like Johnny Oduya and Paul Martin have become the go-to defenders, but as the shot totals have increased, the goals-against numbers for the Devils have not.

Since Lemaire's time, meanwhile, the Devils have had seven different coaches in a decade, a remarkable amount of turnover behind the bench for a franchise known to be among the NHL's most stable.

The common denominators during all of this time have been the goaltending of Brodeur and the management of Lamoriello. Everything else has changed with the Devils except those two factors.

So, the argument that the Devils made Brodeur doesn't quite hold water. In fact, the opposite is more likely true, that Brodeur's brilliance combined with Lamoriello's vision allowed New Jersey to effectively manage all the changes of the past 16 years and remain one of the NHL's most competitive teams.

A close examination of that argument actually adds to the Brodeur legend.

Three other main areas outside the basic statistics further enhance Brodeur's résumé.

First, his unique playing style. As a youngster, he dismissed the Francoise Allaire school of butterfly goaltending in favor of a Montreal-based academy run by former Soviet star Vladislav Tretiak, largely because he preferred Tretiak's philosophy that goalies needed to adapt and innovate, not simply exercise the same technique over and over.

The result has been Brodeur's "hybrid" style, one very different from virtually all current NHL goalies, and most of those who have played during Brodeur's career. A big part of Brodeur's style in his earlier years was his ability to play the puck, which again allowed the Devils, specifically their defensemen, to play a different way because they could rely on their goalie's expertise with the puck on the end of his stick.

Brodeur didn't revolutionize puck handling for goalies. The credit for that belongs more likely to Ron Hextall. But he refined it and turned it into more of a defensive and sometimes offensive tactic than a piece of showmanship. Goalies who came later -- Rick DiPietro, Marty Turco -- followed up on Brodeur's proficiency, and ultimately the NHL legislated against puck-handling goalies largely because Brodeur changed the game.

Brodeur's durability, meanwhile, rivals that of the toughest, hardiest men ever to play the position. Hall made 502 consecutive starts, an extraordinary mark, but Brodeur has started 157 consecutive playoff games for the Devils, an amazing figure in its own right. His absence from the New Jersey net this season due to a biceps tendon injury was noteworthy if only because he has so rarely been injured, playing 70 or more games for 10 straight seasons.

None of the best goalies in the game today -- Roberto Luongo, Miikka Kiprusoff, Turco, Henrik Lundqvist, Tim Thomas, Evgeni Nabokov -- can boast of anything close to that kind of durability.

Finally, Brodeur has been able to extend his excellence to competition outside the NHL, and is the only NHL goalie to own a Stanley Cup ring, a World Cup of Hockey championship and an Olympic gold medal.

He's pretty much covered it all in a career that could go on for another five seasons. Or longer.

So have the argument now over the identity of the best goalie in NHL history.

Down the road, it won't be much of a discussion at all.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."