Martin Brodeur: One of 34 Goaltenders to Play in NHL Beyond 38

He may have been 38, but he still could make flashy glove saves. Watch him do it at age 39. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Martin Brodeur is old.  He's not like Chris Chelios or Gordie Howe, who played forever and ever and ever.  But the legendary goaltender is old.  Martin Brodeur turned 39 in May and he will be the expected starter for the New Jersey Devils in the upcoming 2011-12 season.  The last time Brodeur was not the starter, he was 21 years old and started the 1993-94 season behind Chris Terreri.  Brodeur took over during that season and the rest, as no one says, is ongoing history.

Brodeur is also in the last year of his contract.  Between that, his age, and the fact that very few players have ever had as many accomplishments as he has earned; it's reasonable to think that this might be his last season.  I certainly wouldn't blame him if he calls it a career in 2012.  As far as I'm concerned, he has absolutely nothing left to prove, he has established himself as one of the greatest goalies of all time, and he's arguably the greatest player to ever don the New Jersey Devil sweater. That said, if he thinks he can still play, then by all means - play.   

With training camp beginning, this question has come up - with varying spins. Mark Everson's Thursday article at the NY Post would have you believe his future is in doubt (thanks Cherno77 for the FanShot).  Tom Gulitti's interview with Brodeur in this Friday post at Fire & Ice is more balanced, with Brodeur himself admitting he isn't sure.   That's understandable.  If you'd been excelling at something for close to almost two decades, then you'd find it hard to step back and say "I'm done."

Today, I want to highlight that the fact that Brodeur is still playing at all in of itself is an achievement.  Not many players are good enough to last in the NHL for several seasons. Even fewer play into their late 30s.  I thought about how many goaltenders play this deep into their career.  After checking out Hockey-Reference to satisfy my curiosity, I can say that Brodeur's active career is a testament to his longevity.  I explain how rare that is while touching upon what could we expect given his age after the jump.

Hockey-Reference does sort player's seasons by their age.  Unlike the NHL, the cut off for age is how old the player was on February 1.  Since Brodeur was born on May 6, he'll be 39 for this season.  Anyway, here's the entire list of NHL goaltenders who have played at least 1 game at the age of 38 or older.   There have been only 79 seasons of goaltenders since 1916-17 that have played at such a late age.   Here's how it breaks down by the individual age.
Age # Goalies Avg. GP
38 28 29.53571
39 15 36.2
40 11 29.8181
41 10 35.6
42 6 31.75
43 4 32.5
44 3 29.6667
45 1 40
46 1 1

 

What shouldn't be so surprising is that as the age increases, there are fewer and fewer goaltenders who've made it that far.  What is a little surprising is how the average games played for those goaltenders is all over the place.  Given that the population size for each age is so small, a few players who've only got in a few games brings the average down. Likewise, some goaltenders played at such a late age back in the days when the season was 48 games or less (e.g. George Hainsworth before he turned 41).  Outside of the really old eras of the NHL, the majority of these older goaltenders were not necessarily the team's top goaltender.  For Brodeur to be the #1 goalie on his team, he's in a rare class.

In fact, Martin Brodeur's 56 games last season was the third highest among all goaltenders who ever played at age 38. Among the goaltenders who played in between ages 38 and 46, that games played total is tied with Dominik Hasek's 2006-07 season (when he was 42) for fifth among the whole group of 79 seasons.   Only one goaltender played more than 60 games when they were over 38, and that came in 2008-09 by a then-39-year-old Dwayne Roloson with 63 game appearances.  Keep this in mind when trying to figure out how many games Brodeur will play.  Likewise, if Brodeur does happen to stay healthy - which is possible since two of his three injuries last season were due to fluke occurrences where his arm was struck - and play in over 60 games, then recognize it for the achievement that it is.

Now, from the first H-R link, there are some repeated players since some continued to play beyond 38 years of age for some varying period of time.  How many individual goaltenders actually made past this threshold.  Here's the list of combined seasons from goaltenders who have played in the NHL at age 38 and up.  Only 33 goaltenders have done it.  14 of them are in the Hockey Hall of Fame right now, and it'll definitely be at least 15 since there's no way Dominik Hasek doesn't make the Hall of Fame.  It's a small group, but filled with very good to the very best goaltenders in history.  This make sense.  It's hard for a goaltender who's been bad to stay in the league at any age.  Those who last have to have some talent for teams to keep giving them a chance.  

So by continuing to play, Brodeur - already the all-time leader in minutes and games played - furthers his legendary longevity.  What can we expect from him in terms of performance?   Unfortunately, this answer is unclear.  Only 28 of the 79 seasons have save percentage; the goalies are all from different eras; record and goals against average both have as much to do with the team as well as the goaltender.  Without a consistent metric outside of games played - working on the assumption that players who decline don't get games - I don't know how to answer this.   I'd like to believe Jacques Plante's 68-69 and 70-71, Georges Vezina's 24-25, and Gump Worsley's 67-68 were all great; but there's not much to justify that beyond GAA and record.  Hasek's 2005-06 stands out with a 92.5% save percentage, one of the best in the league that season.   I guess that should be seen as a pinnacle for these modern times.

We can safely say that Brodeur's numbers weren't good last season, though he didn't give up a lot of soft goals - actually fewer than he did in a statistically-better 2009-10 season.  Still, he's not at the bottom end of the 28 seasons with save percentage; nor is he near the top.  He's right in the middle, with plenty of other 90-ish percentages.  Among the three other 38+ goalies last season, he's right there with Chris Osgood who got relegated to back-up status, he's behind Roloson's 91.4%, and he's way better than Nikolai Khabibulin.   Given the limited data, I'm inclined to think that if Brodeur puts up similar numbers, it shouldn't be so surprising given NHL history. It would still be disappointing relative to now since the average NHL goaltender is that much better than in the past.

That said, I think there's some reason to believe he'll put up better numbers, even though that's rare given NHL history.  None of his three injuries last season are persistent, so he's fully healthy.  It's doubtful that he'll be playing with a patch-work blueline in front of him that he had to endure for parts of the first half of last season, suffering with AHL-caliber defenders not doing much in front of him (e.g. Tyler Eckford, Olivier Magnan-Grenier).  A lot of it will be up to Brodeur, he is the shot-stopper after all, but I don't think he'll have such an unfavorable situation this season as he did at times last season.   I wouldn't expect him to be the best goalie in the league (though after Tim Thomas' 2010-11 campaign, perhaps anything is possible), but bouncing back is not an unreasonable explanation. To what that would be, who knows.  I don't think he'll come close to 92.5% like Hasek did right after the lockout if only because he hasn't hit 92% on a season since 2007-08.

How he and the team performs will certainly be a big factor on whether he plays beyond 2011-12.   Regardless, that he's playing at all adds to Brodeur's legend.  Very few goaltenders in league history, only 33 (34 with Johan Hedberg turning 38 in this coming season), have ever played at the age of 38 and older, much less get to play as many games as he did last season.   For Brodeur to continue to be main goaltender at age 39 makes him stand out in history more than he already has - even if he ends his career after this coming season.  Based on the limited stats in history, we probably shouldn't expect Brodeur to be fantastic - but he could be better than last season.  After all, who would have thought way back in 1993-94 that a 21-year goaltender would become the starter, much less remain the Devils' #1 goalie for 16 more seasons, win 4 Vezinas, 3 Stanley Cups, and obtain several league records.

What do you think of Brodeur continuing to play in the NHL at such a late age?  Do you think he'll be able to play for even longer should he want to continue his career?  How do you expect Brodeur to perform in this coming season? Please leave your answers and other Brodeur-related thoughts in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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