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March 19, 2009
Numbers On Ice
“Brodeur or Bust!,” the Top Goaltenders in NHL history, Part 1

by Tom Awad

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It is a common desire among humans to want to believe that they are witnessing something unique. Everybody would like to think that they have seen something important, special, not to be repeated again. One of the places we see this is in professional sports, where we always seem able to witness the “best ever”. To hear commentators, every exceptional athlete we’ve seen in the last 20 years is the best ever at his sport or his position. Wayne Gretzky; Michael Jordan; Tiger Woods; Tom Brady; Michael Phelps. And now, with his latest record-breaking push, Martin Brodeur.

Even since the first retirement of Dominik Hasek in 2002, Brodeur has been the consensus pick as the best active goaltender, and is now referred to more and more often as “one of the greatest goaltenders of all-time” and, more controversially, “THE greatest goaltender of all-time”. The arguments people advance for this status are mostly his win and shutout records, since it has been a no-brainer for some years that, barring a career-ending injury, Brodeur would one day eclipse these marks; and his three Stanley Cup wins leading a team that lacked the offensive superstar that most other Cup-winners have had. While both of these achievements do correlate with success (it is very hard for a bad goaltender to win 550 games in his career), they are not the most relevant measure of goaltender value.

A goaltender’s job is to block shots; wins, shutouts and even Stanley Cups are a secondary consequence of successfully blocking shots. A goaltender whose team is losing 4-2 and suddenly scores 3 goals is credited for a win, even though he had little to do with the victory other than not letting the game get further out of hand; similarly, a goaltender who loses a tight game 1-0 probably played very well, but gets neither a win nor a shutout for his efforts. Some people will answer that hockey is a team game; if so, fine. Let’s argue about the best and worst teams, and leave the players entirely out of the discussion. This is unsatisfactory: one of the objectives of statistical analysis, and indeed all analysis, is to dissect how individual contributions contribute to team success, since teams are built one player at a time.

When analyzing a goaltender using GVT, the primary contribution of the goaltender is to block shots; wins, shutouts and similar statistics receive no weighting, nor should they. To those who insist on ranking goaltenders by Wins, Shutouts or Stanley Cups, I answer this: Hasek, 389 wins, 1 Stanley Cup (as a #1 goalie); Osgood, 386 wins, 2 Stanley Cups. Nothing against Osgood, but are these really equivalent goaltenders?

There are some secondary factors that are worth mentioning: goaltenders do contribute to the quantity and quality of shots they face, and as such should receive a small part of the credit for a low quantity of shots against; indeed, with his puckhandling skills, this is one of the things that Brodeur does very well.

Utilizing GVT statistics going back to 1944, I will now rank the top goaltenders in the history of the NHL. Before I begin, a few caveats:

- Playoff and regular-season results will both be included in my weighting. Normalizing for length of schedule and team strength over short playoff runs is more art than science, but I have tried my best.

- For regular-season results, I have weighted the 9 best years of a player’s career more than the remaining years. This is to match with what we consider to be a successful career, which is a blend of peak performance and endurance. I doubt many people consider Al MacInnis to be a better defenseman than Bobby Orr.

As a result of this methodology, players GVT ratings will be split as Peak, Longevity and Playoffs. When two players are close enough that their GVT numbers can be considered statistically indistinguishable, I have ranked them equally. As additional information, to show how many elite seasons a goaltender truly had, I have listed the number of times they ranked in the Top 5 in GVT for the regular season and playoffs. For example, in Billy Smith’s case, he was in the top 5 2 times in the regular season and 5 times in the playoffs, so he’s listed as 2 / 5.

One last comment: when I say someone “was the MVP” of a season, I mean they had the highest GVT rating of any player that year, not that they won the Hart or Conn Smythe trophy.

On to the rankings!

#10 (tied): Billy Smith - Peak: 209.5 Long: 20.9 Poff: 75.1 Total: 305.5 Top 5s: 2 / 5

The Hatchet Man was an integral member of the New York Islanders dynasty that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980 to 1983, and unlike many goaltenders whose reputation has ridden the coattails of their dynasty (Fuhr, I’m looking at you), Smith was truly one of the elite goaltenders of his era. His regular season career numbers would be even better if he had not played in the last 70s and 80s, where the two-goalie system was entrenched and even #1s didn’t play more than 50 games a season. He was the MVP of the playoffs twice, in 1981 and 1983, and his overall playoff performance puts him in 13th place among all players all-time.

#10 (tied): Bill Durnan - Peak: 283.1 Long: 0.0 Poff: 23.6 Total: 306.6 Top 5s: 7 / 3

It’s extremely hard to rank goaltenders from 60 years ago because of the dearth of statistics available, but a reasonable reconstruction leaves no doubt as to the dominance of Bill Durnan. Durnan only played 7 full seasons in the NHL, and may very well have been the MVP of the league in 6 of them. Though some of his early success could be attributed to the weakness of the league during the tail-end of World War 2, Durnan was the dominant goalie of the league until his retirement in 1950, had career goals-against average of 2.36 when the league average was 3.32, and led the Canadiens to two Stanley Cups in 1944 and 1946. Bill Durnan is among the best of any era.

#9: Bernie Parent - Peak: 269.8 Long: 1.7 Poff: 47.6 Total: 319.1 Top 5s: 3 / 3

Another goaltender associated to a mini-dynasty, Parent was the last line of defense of the Broad Street Bullies, the Flyers teams that were the first expansion team to win the Stanley Cup in 1974 and again in 1975. Parent had a relatively short career, entering the league in 1965 with the Boston Bruins, missing the 1973 and 1976 seasons, and being forced into retirement by an eye injury at the age of 33. Nevertheless, Parent accomplished much in this time, including possibly the single most dominant season by any player ever (a bold statement, I know!) in 1973-74 when he was the MVP of both the regular season and playoffs. His combined GVT of 91.1 that year remains unmatched.

Tomorrow, I'll continue the countdown with the top 8 goaltenders in NHL history.

Tom Awad is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Tom by clicking here or click here to see Tom's other articles.

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