Martin Brodeur already was among the NHL's goaltending elite at the start of this decade. Ten years later, the New Jersey Devils' netminder is alone at the top.
Brodeur was the easy winner among our voting panel as the most valuable player of the 2000s, topping Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who, in turn, was far ahead of anyone else, including Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Brodeur and Lidstrom both led their teams to a pair of Stanley Cup triumphs during the decade (Brodeur in 2000 and 2003; Lidstrom in '02 and '08). Both also got their teams within one game of repeating as champions (Brodeur in 2001, Lidstrom eight years later). Both will go into the Hall of Fame as soon as they are eligible.
But Brodeur has combined durability and excellence to a degree unmatched by any other player at hockey's most demanding position in NHL history.
Consider his achievements during 2009 alone. On March 17, he became the winningest regular-season goaltender in NHL history when he beat the Chicago Blackhawks for his 552 nd career victory, surpassing Patrick Roy. On Nov. 27, he passed Roy again for the minutes-played record by a goaltender.
On Dec. 7, Brodeur tied Terry Sawchuk's nearly 40-year-old mark for career shutouts with the 103rd of his career. Eleven days later, he passed Roy again by playing the record-setting 1,030 th regular-season game of his career. He capped his year Monday with shutout No. 104, blanking the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0 at Mellon Arena to move past Sawchuk. Of his 104 shutouts, 65 have come since Jan. 1, 2000.
But while records are great, the most important thing for Brodeur at the end of the day is putting up another "W" – he's got a League-leading 23 already this season after the victory in Pittsburgh, which put the Devils on top in the overall NHL standings.
"It's not as important as winning," Brodeur said of passing the games-played record. "The reason why I'm here is to win hockey games. But I guess it says a lot about being a good goalkeeper, staying around so long. People seem to make a lot more about it than I do. I guess you have to love the game to be able to stick around."
He must love it a lot, because playing a lot of games is a Brodeur trademark. Before missing 50 games last season with a torn biceps muscle – the first serious injury of his career – Brodeur had played at least 70 games for nine-consecutive seasons. In all, he's done it 10 times – and is well on the way to No. 11 with 33 appearances already this season.
In his case, just showing up really is a big part of his success.
"I think I based a lot of my career on being durable, playing a lot of games and being consistent," he said. "To play that many games, I think it adds up to being durable and being successful. If you're not successful, the coach doesn't put you in the net for that many games. Definitely, it's been nice playing a lot of games."
But playing a lot of games is one thing. Playing well is another. His calm demeanor and hybrid style of play – he's incorporated elements of the classic standup and butterfly into a style uniquely his own – have made him unique.
"I've learned through the years to incorporate other things from other goalies," he said. "I just play the game. My style is whatever people make it up to be. I just have to stop that puck. I have to figure a way out sometimes. Sometimes it's not really nice but it's been working pretty good, I guess."
That's an understatement. In addition to the career record for victories and shutouts, Brodeur holds the single-season record for victories with 48 in 2006-07. He owns the record for total 40-victory seasons (7) and the most consecutive 40-win seasons (3, from 2005-06 to 2007-08).
Devils coach Jacques Lemaire owns an interesting perspective on Brodeur, having coached him during the first few years of his career, then again this season after coming back to New Jersey after more than a decade away from the team.
Lemaire feels Brodeur's demeanor and play have not changed since his first stint as coach,
"Exactly the same goalie," Lemaire said recently when asked if he saw any difference between the 1990s and 2000s models of Brodeur. "He's strong mentally. He's a guy that loves the game and works to get as good as he can every day. So, he hasn't changed."
And what does Brodeur's coach see as the keys to his success?
"He's got to be good. That's one," Lemaire said. "Otherwise, they'll send him to the minors. And, secondly, I think he's got to love the game. You have to love the game if you last that long."
To look at Brodeur, there's nothing that would indicate he might be the greatest goaltender ever to put on pads. He's listed at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, and aside from his state-of-the-art approach to handling the puck, there's no individual part of his game that screams "greatness."
But as Ottawa rookie Erik Karlsson found out in his first game against Brodeur last Friday, appearances can be deceiving.
"If you look at him, you can't understand how he could be so good," Karlsson said after Ottawa's 4-2 loss at the Prudential Center. "He doesn't look so big, but somehow he saves a lot of great shots."
"It's pretty incredible. The records are piling up,'' Crosby said of Brodeur – his teammate-to-be with Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in February. "He's a legendary goalie and he proves it every year."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Brodeur is his calmness. He's virtually unflappable – a rarity at his position – and is a master at not making playing goal any harder than it has to be, whether that means making the big stop when it's needed or shaking off the occasional bad goal or off-night.
"I make the game easy on myself, but the demeanor, I think the pressure I don't feel as much as maybe other guys," he said. "Maybe that helps me to play more, but I'm not in anybody else's shoes. I know for me this is a fun game and it's fun coming to the rink every day and it's fun being a part of a great organization that trusts you to be in the net for them."
Brodeur has no intention of ending the fun. At age 37, with 16 NHL seasons, he appears to be enjoying hockey as much as he did when he was winning the Calder Trophy in 1993-94. There's no telling how far he'll have pushed some of his records by the time he finally decides he's had enough.
"As long as he wants to win, he's going to continue to own every record," Lemaire said. "He's going to continue to pile up the wins."